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4 Oct, 2020 06:22

On Contact: Assange extradition hearing

Chris Hedges discusses with former British ambassador Craig Murray the hearing that just adjourned in London to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the United States. Murray’s exhaustive reporting, which can be found at craigmurray.org.uk, has become one of the few sources of reliable information about the hearing, which has become notoriously difficult to cover due to court restrictions imposed on the press, and is being ignored by most mainstream news organizations.

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Craig Murray: There has been a unanimous virtually decision among the mainstream media not to cover the case.  It is quite astonishing and yet the arguments which are being heard are of vital importance to them.  And one thing which I think cannot be stressed too much is that the United States Government has quite openly argued that they have the right to prosecute any journalist or any publisher who publishes U.S classified information anywhere in the world.  And the United States Government has openly argued in court that The New York Times case at the Supreme Court in the Pentagon Papers case that in the dicta of several supreme court judges in that case, they stated the new york times could have been prosecuted under the espionage act.

Chris Hedges: Former British Ambassador, Craig John Murray, who was removed from his post as the British Ambassador to Uzbekistan when he publicly denounced the Uzbek government's widespread human rights violations including the use of torture and the imprisonment of thousands of dissidents has daily chronicled what he correctly calls the most important trial of the century and how it is being conducted the hearing underway to extradite Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks to the United States.  Murray's exhaustive reporting which can be found on craigmurray.org.uk has become one of the few sources of reliable information about a trial that has become notoriously difficult to cover because of court restrictions imposed on the press and is being ignored by most of the mainstream news organizations.  Joining me from London is Craig Murray, the Tacitus of our time, who also served as the rector of the University of Dundee and whose books include "Sikunder Burnes: Master of the Great Game," The Catholic Orangemen of Togo," and his memoir "Murder in Samarkand," which was turned by the playwright David Hare into a radio play.  So Craig, I've read all of your reports which are really remarkable feats of journalism, you know, rivaling perhaps Johnson.  And there--you pick up patterns of anomalies within this process, you know, this kind of burlesque, this pantomime of justice, lay out what those patterns are when they go after Julian, everything from the Kromberg is the Holy Grail to these kind of strange decisions by the judge [INDISTINCT]

CM: You're quite right, there are several underlying patterns of happening which really, throughout the trial, have dictated what goes on.  One of those is the witnesses for the prosecution cannot be cross-examined.  So there is a US Assistant Attorney from the Justice Department, Gordon Kromberg, who has given huge amounts of evidence which states essentially the prison conditions of the United States are absolutely fine, that there's not too much chance that Julian Assange would be held under special administrative measures, and numerous other, you know, very contentious statements and he cannot be cross-examined on those statements.  US government psychiatrists giving evidence about treatment of prisoners in--within the US prison system cannot be cross-examined and yet the prosecution can cross-examine all the defense witnesses, that's one example of the kind of structural inequality in these proceedings, but it's by no means alone.  It really is quite remarkable the way that witnesses have been demeaned, have been humiliated, have been assaulted as to their integrity, and there's been a pattern to this.  Every single defense witness has had their qualifications produced, no matter how qualified they are, and a very large number have been professors of their--of their subject.  They've had their good faith assaulted.  It's really been quite extraordinary but very difficult to see good people subjected to this and, of course, overall the, you know, you have the overarching peculiarities, for example the US-UK Extradition Treaty, specifically at Clause 4, excludes extradition for a political offence and plainly what WikiLeaks are accused of doing in terms of publishing, you know, classified information about war crimes effectively, that's the very definition of a political offense.  It wasn't done for financial gain, it wasn't done for any other motive than the--than the political, and yet the US Government and British Government's stance has been that clause of the treaty does not apply because it is incompatible with the British Government legislation that implements the treaty, and that's really quite extraordinary to say you are extraditing somebody under a treaty but that a clause of the treaty under which you are extraditing does not apply.  So there are--I'm--they're numerous.  I could sit here for full evening just outlining the anomalies in the case.

CH: Can you talk a little bit about the decisions by the judge.  She's been very interventionist.  One of the things you've noted in your reports is that she actually writes up her decisions on a laptop before she hears the testimony in the courtroom, but she's also excluded important witnesses for the defense.  Can you talk a little bit about how she's conducted this hearing?

CM: No, that's very true.  Now I would slightly correct you to say that certainly she reads out from a laptop prewritten judgments which are written before she hears the arguments.  Of course what happens is that if there's a decision, a procedural decision to be made, both sides have submitted written arguments and she has votes to go on, but then they argue the case in front of it in court, she's briefed on the arguments, and sometimes those big things can take a couple of hours as prosecution and defense argue as to--as to which way this call should go and some of these are very big calls, you know, the calls as to how long the proceeding should last, their calls as to whether witnesses should be seen in secret, their calls as to whether witnesses may be called at all, their calls us to whether there can be closing speeches, you know, there are many key procedural issues on which she has ruled.  And in every case, she brings with her into court rulings which have been written before she hears any of the arguments.  So the entire charade of listening to the council's arguing is entirely meaningless and the point on which I would correct you is that you said that she brings into, you know, laptop judgments, which she has written on her laptop and that may well be true, but all we can say is she brings in judgments that somebody has written as she brings in on her laptop.

CH: There's been a concerted effort to essentially keep this trial from being covered.  You're one of just a handful of people who's been allowed into the courtroom.  I think you got in as part of the kind of family group, if I'm not mistaken.  Talk a little bit about--and when you follow the proceedings, it's almost understandable because of this kind of almost farcical Gilbert and Sullivan type charade that's taking place but talk about the mechanisms by which the British Government has employed several of them to essentially keep the media out and then of course the irresponsibility on the part of much of the mainstream media which, including my old employer, The New York Times, who's just ignored the case, ignored the hearing.

CM: Yeah.  No, a couple of very, very important points there.  The trial is heard in virtual secrecy.  There are 42 seats in the public gallery in this particular quarter of the Old Bailey.  Only five of us are allowed into the public gallery and I'm there every day on the grounds I'm apparently Julian's uncle.  You know, in my family, we had people we called uncle who weren't actually uncles.  It's not an unknown thing to have--to have family uncles.  So, I'm Julian's uncle for these purposes.  But only five people in the public gallery.  And then there were supposed to be video access for NGOs and the media, but all, I believe, certainly virtually all, and I believe actually the whole lot of NGOs, were cut off by the judge on day one and that--Matt's group says, you know, as big and formidable as Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders had their access cut on the morning of the first hearing at the Old Bailey, and as did members of the European Parliament.  The judge explained that she decided it was in the interest of justice that their access should be cut and--but how it is in the interest of justice for amnesty international should not be allowed to follow the trial.  It's something which nobody has yet explained which it's impossible to understand.  It is open to the major media organizations to follow it and there's no particular reason that I understand why The Washington Post nor The New York Times can't get a video link, they would be able to get a video link, but they just haven't bothered that there has been a unanimous virtually decision among the mainstream media not to cover the case.  It is quite astonishing, and yet the arguments which are being heard are of vital importance to them.  And one thing which I think cannot be stressed too much is that the United States Government has quite openly argued that they have the right to prosecute any journalist or any publisher who publishes US classified information anywhere in the world, and the United States Government has openly argued in court that The New York Times case of the Supreme Court in the Pentagon Papers case, that in the dicta of several Supreme Court judges in that case they stated the New York Times could have been prosecuted under the Espionage Act, and the United States Government has in court here at the old bailey absolutely asserted the right to prosecute journalists under the Espionage Act for possession of classified information however they obtained that information, and they have relied on a very controversial case known as the Rosen Case where a judgment which wasn't actually about journalism but which supports that line was made but wasn't actually ultimately progressed by the Justice Department because the Justice Department at the time thought it was contrary to the First Amendment.  But this is an absolutely open and undisguised assault on the freedom of the press and on the First Amendment by the--by the American Government, which in terms seeks to reverse The New York Times decision in the Pentagon Papers case.  So it is simply astonishing to me that the major media, particularly from the United States, have paid no attention to it whatsoever.

CH: Great.  When we come back, we'll continue our conversation on the extradition hearing in London of Julian Assange, the Founder of WikiLeaks with Craig Murray.

Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation about the extradition hearing of Julian Assange with Craig Murray.  So I want to ask about the superseding indictment, this--there have been what I think three indictments if I follow that correctly.  So, the United States or, you know, the prosecution for the United States suddenly brings up a completely new indictment which, I think, the defense doesn't get until six weeks before the trial and it drops the--it charges him with criminal activity, you know, freeing--helping Edward Snowden free from Hong Kong, which he was never charged with as a crime, this kind of stuff, various, you know, breaking into banks and stuff in Iceland.  And from those of us who are watching from a distance, it appeared that the tactic was to get away from any idea that this was politically motivated, which, of course, it is.  But then into the trial with so little coverage, they suddenly pivoted, as you pointed out, to say quite shockingly in open court, that, yes, The New York Times and other publications could be charged under the 1917 Espionage Act that is an act that was instituted essentially for passing state secrets to a hostile foreign power, wasn't used three times between 1917 and the Obama administration, including after Ellsberg where there was an abortive--his trial was finally aborted because of illegal activity on the part of the Nixon administration and then Obama used it quite heavily, I think, nine times totally.  So I found that fascinating.  Why do you--do you--do you--that was my theory, I'm curious as to what you thought why they began one way and then just came out quite brazenly with this statement.

CM: It--it's really a very interesting question.  I mean you're right and that the second superseding indictment was built in at the last minute.  It built in a whole raft of completely new charges relating to this very strange informer in Iceland and that informer is himself a convicted sexual offender with a child sexual offense to his name, and had been convicted of impersonating Julian Assange, and of stealing money from WikiLeaks in an Icelandic Criminal Court.  So we thought they would then, you know, go that way and the defense were not allowed time to prepare against this new indictment.  The judge refused them an adjournment to prepare.  So we expected to hear a lot on this new indictment but in fact we heard nothing whatsoever.  Then we had a couple of days in which--or three days at the start of these hearings in which the US government concentrated on this line that the prosecution has all to do with Julian Assange's collusion with Chelsea Manning, and therefore it did not affect respectable media outlets like The New York Times or The Washington Post.  But that didn't go well either because a series of very, very impressive defense witnesses, particularly Daniel Ellsberg, but others as well, absolutely demolished that line of attack.  We then had this very strange thing that happened where there was a two-day break because the junior council for the United States claimed that her husband was possibly having COVID and needed the COVID test, so the court stopped for two days.  And that was a kind of timeout, you know, the prosecution was plainly reeling at that stage from a number of very strong witnesses and needed a new tactic.  And after that, that COVID timeout, they then came back with this completely new tactic of adopting the Rosen Case, and adopting this very aggressive line that any journalist outlet that publishes national security information is liable to prosecution under the 1917 Espionage Act.

CH: And do you have any theory as to why they made that change?

CM: I think they weren't winning.  I think their argument that there is a difference between Julian Assange and the mainstream media journalist plainly wasn't holding water.  I mean, you could argue, you know, they tried to make an argument that Julian Assange cultivated Chelsea Manning.  But then so many witnesses stated even if that were true, that would be no different to how say Deep Throat was cultivated during the Watergate Crisis.  But, you know, you couldn't really differentiate between what Julian Assange was doing and normal journalistic behavior.  The attempt to make that differentiation plainly was not holding water, so they had to abandon that and say no, it's journalistic activity, that's illegal if it comes to releasing national security information.

CH: So you have now essentially an open assault in a British courtroom against the First Amendment.  We know the consequences of this.  I think it's why you and I and so many others are so concerned and mystified as to why news organizations like The New York Times haven't, you know, out of their own self-interest, taken up this case.  There's a series of attempts to go after Julian on clearly bogus charges.  For instance, that he was responsible for leaking the names of informants when we know that the key to the entire WikiLeaks file that had the name of informants was released by Luke Harding in his book, that he assisted Chelsea Manning in obtaining documents that Chelsea Manning didn't need any assistance obtaining and already downloaded.  I mean, from a distance I just don't understand why, along with the fact that the US prison system is a giant summer camp where--and there are so many cases, documented cases of abuse and torture, misuse of solitary confinement, et cetera.  But why are they clinging to these charges that are just suspicious, that are just so patently false?

CM: Well, I think they're trying to give a fake leave to the mainstream media to, you know, give them some comfort that in some way Julian is being charged for things other than journalism, like for example, you know, releasing the names of informants when in fact there's been a huge amount of evidence led by, you know, very credible witnesses that Julian was extremely concerned to redact the names of informants.  There was a major year-long operation going on to redact the name of informants.  It was meant to last for another year and that, as you say, unfortunately it all came crashing down when The Guardian or Luke Harding and David Lee of The Guardian published the key.  But all of these rather silly smokescreen charges, which are probably not true, are all designed to give some comfort to the--to the establishment media that in some way there's a differentiation, that in some way Julian Assange did something different to what they do, and that they won't be next in line if this goes ahead.  They're very, very foolish if they buy that.  And I'm--I am genuinely astonished that even if they don't want to give it much media coverage, I'm absolutely astonished that The New York Post and the Washington Times and the major television channels don't all have their media lawyers in court listening very, very carefully to the line on, effectively, the abolition of the First Amendment being put forward on behalf of the United States government.

CH: You know, one of the things I found disturbing in your reports which is what's happened to your blog, and that "There's been shadow banning from Twitter and Facebook.  Normally, 50% of my blog readers arrive from Twitter, 40% from Facebook.  During the trial, it has been three percent from Twitter, nine percent from Facebook.  That's a fall from 90% to 12%.  And you--they usually got Facebook and Twitter would send you about 200,000 readers a day, now they are sending me 3,000 readers a day."  Were you--were you surprised?

CM: Yeah, I mean, of course anybody who is at all radical or takes any view of anything that's out with the official establishment view gets used to occasional shadow banning, but I've never seen anything on the scale before where--and of course it--the very scary thing is that we feel that we have achieved something where we built up our alternative media voices on the internet to an extent that you're able to be heard.  And then you realize that the big corporate gatekeepers, you know, especially Facebook and Twitter, to a lesser extent Google and others, have the ability to just chop you off at the knees and cut you--cut you down.  And so, you know, I was in the circumstance where when I was reporting in February, March on the first four days of the hearing when the opening arguments held at Belmar, I was getting 250,000, 300,000 people a day at my website.  And as I've been, you know, writing up these daily reports now in the resumption, I'm getting 10% of that.  You know, 90% of my traffic has just been cut off but by what seems to be, as far as I can gather, a general sort of algorithm command of some kind to downplay Assange.  I think it's as simple as that, I think anything mentioning Assange or anything with any attachment that mentions Assange is getting shadow banned pretty well across all social media.

CH: Now, we actually in the United States know that he--the name Julian Assange has now in been worked into algorithms by Facebook, Twitter so that people are not referred or called impressions.  Is this--I once had a discussion with Ralph Nader and he said, "You know, if you look at us politically, we're actually conservatives because what we're calling for is the rule of law against people who are eviscerating the rule of law."  And I think reading your reports, one of the things that comes through is just this deep lament for the collapse of our legal systems are always flawed, always favored the privileged and the property owners.  But I sense within your reporting this deep sadness not only what's happening to Julian, the injustice that's being visited on Julian, but on the very institutions themselves.

CM: I think that's very true.  I think that, you know, there was always obviously an element of abuse of power, of corruption behind governments, everywhere in the world there always has been.  But I think that the institutions of liberal democracy to some extent used to abide by their own professed principles.  And now sadly, you know, that's disappearing and even, you know, a place like the Old Bailey, which is the place which has the famous statue of blindfold justice outside the original one.  It no longer stands for justice of any kind and we're seeing a horrific abusive process.  And, you know, it is--you're right I'm, you know, I'm a former ambassador, I'm not a natural radical but all the--all the things that I was brought up to believe in, you know, are plainly now exposed as hollow and a sham and no longer having meaning.  So you you're right, I mean, my blogs at the moment I've written with a deep, deep sadness inside of me.

CH: Great, that was Craig Murray, author of the blog craigmurray.org.uk, which I urge you all to subscribe to as I have.  Thank you very much.

CM: Thank you.