On Contact: The persecution of Julian Assange
On the show, Chris Hedges discusses ‘The Trial of Julian Assange,’ a new book by Nils Melzer, UN special rapporteur on torture.
In July 2010, WikiLeaks published ‘Cablegate,’ one of the biggest leaks in the history of the US military, including evidence of war crimes and torture. Julian Assange, the founder and spokesman of WikiLeaks, immediately found himself a target, accused of hacking, and later sexual assault. He spent the next seven years in asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, fearful that he would be extradited to Sweden to face accusations of assault and then sent to the US. In 2019, Assange was handed over to the British police. On the same day, the US demanded his extradition. He faces up to 175 years in prison for alleged espionage and computer fraud.
It was at this moment that Nils Melzer, UN special rapporteur on torture, started his methodical investigation into how the US and UK governments were working in tandem to imprison Assange for life in the United States. The more Melzer investigated the more it became apparent that the UK and the United States were grossly distorting the legal process to revoke Assange’s most basic rights, including due process along with the flagrant manipulation of evidence. The violations included the taping of Assange’s meetings with his attorneys, in violation of attorney-client privilege. Melzer gathered medical and psychological evidence to prove that Assange had suffered prolonged and orchestrated psychological torture. All these measures were instituted solely because Assange provided to the public evidence of war crimes, lies, corruption and a callous indifference by the United States to human life.
Nils Melzer is the UN special rapporteur on torture. His new book is ‘The Trial of Julian Assange: A Story of Persecution.’
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CH: Welcome to On Contact. Today we discuss “The Trial of Julian Assange” a new book by Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture.
NM: The first question is what is he being accused of? Look at the US indictment, it’s receiving and publishing secret information that proves war crimes and corruption. I mean, is that a crime or is that journalism? Isn’t that protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and Press Freedom? Yes, it is. So that’s not a crime. And so what is he being accused of exactly, being a narcissist? I mean, not even that. I mean, it’s completely absurd. We--first of all, we don’t know what he’s--actually what crime has he committed. And then the other thing is, the extradition, I mean, he’s being indicted under the Espionage Act. Espionage is the quintessential political offense. The treaty between the US and the UK government on extraditions prohibits explicitly any extradition for political offense, so they can’t extradite him lawfully for an espionage charge anyway.
CH: In July 2010, WikiLeaks published Cablegate, one of its biggest leaks in the history of the US military, including evidence for war crimes and torture. Julian Assange, the founder and spokesperson of WikiLeaks immediately found himself a target, accused of hacking and later accused of sexual assault in Sweden. He spent the next seven years in asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, fearful that he would be extradited to Sweden to face the accusations of sexual assault and then immediately sent to the United States. In 2019, Assange was handed over to the British Police. On the same day, the US demanded his extradition. He faces up to 175 years in prison for alleged espionage and computer fraud. It was at this moment that Nils Melzer, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, started his methodical investigation into how the United States and the British government were working in tandem to imprison Assange for life in the United States. The more Melzer investigated, the more it became apparent that both the British and American government were grossly distorting the legal process to revoke Assange’s most basic rights, including due process, along with the flagrant manipulation of evidence. The violations included the taping of Assange’s meetings with his attorneys in violation of attorney-client privilege. Melzer gathered methodical, medical, and psychological evidence to prove that Assange suffered prolonged and orchestrated psychological torture. All these measures were instituted solely because Assange provided to the public evidence of war crimes, lies, corruption, and a callous indifference by the United States in particular to human life. Joining me to discuss his book, “The Trial of Julian Assange: A Story of Persecution,” is Nils Melzer, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture. So, I--this is, as far as I’ve found, the best book. For anyone who wants to piece by piece understand what happened to Julian, why it was done, and the repeated violations of both international and UK, and I would argue, even American law, this is the book they should read. But I found it fascinating. You begin the book by admitting what you call your own deception. And that becomes an important theme in the book but I want you to talk about that.
NM: Yeah. Well, thanks for having me on the show, Chris. I--yes, that really was one of the most troubling aspects to me because, yeah, I’ve worked with human rights violations for 25 years. I’ve worked in war areas around the world. I mean, I’ve seen some of the worst crimes and the consequences of some of the worst crimes in history. And so here I am in December 2018 writing away on a--at a report for the United Nations and I receive an email, incoming mail from Julian Assange’s lawyers and the title said, “They’re asking for your protection.” And I immediately had this visceral reaction almost emotionally, “No, not this guy. You know, this is this hacker, rapist, traitor, narcissist, he’s just going to manipulate me so I’m going to ignore this.” Now, okay. You have to know I receive about 10 to 15 requests a day for protection and I can--I can intervene in one case, so I have to decide quickly. But I distinctly remember this emotional, kind of, conglomerate of prejudice that I had. And, obviously, this was out of my mind, you know, immediately. And about three months later, his lawyers come back, that was March 2019, a few weeks before he was expelled from the embassy and they sent a medical opinion by Dr. Sondra Crosby, who is not an act--an activist, you know, who is one of the most respected independent doctors who also visited Guantanamo, who’s been specialized in examining torture victims for all her life, and she actually did an independent medical examination and I received a copy of that, and it said that his living conditions in the embassy violated the convention against torture. And now, I was thinking, like, what? Living in an embassy with a cat and a skateboard? I mean, how hard can it be, right? I mean, I had this--I had this, you know, many people--I’m saying this because many people out there still think like this, you know? And so then I thought, “Well, if I have this medical opinion though, I think I’d better look into this case.” And I decided to go there myself and to bring my own medical team that I was sure, you know, was experienced, technically competent. And I went with, you know, the former President of the World Forensic Society and a psychiatrist who had actually led a torture rehabilitation center for decades. And both of them independently came to the conclusion from each other that Julian Assange showed all the symptoms that are typical for a victim of prolonged psychological torture. I also had bilateral talks with him when I visited him in prison in Belmarsh in--on the 9th of May, 2019, and he really reminded me of political prisoners I had visited in Secret Service, you know, prisons around the world who have been isolated for very long. He had these extreme anxieties, you know, interchangeable with deep depressions. And the doctors both confirmed that there were neurological and cognitive impairments that were already measurable as a consequence of this intense stress and persecution. So, this really was to me the starting point when I said, “Well, there’s something wrong here. I need to--I mean he’s been in a room in an embassy for six years, he shows these symptoms, he’s extremely resilient and intelligent as a man, so something’s wrong here. I need to investigate this.” At the beginning I was convinced, you know, this would be a short thing. I would make a few recommendations to the Brits and, you know, this is a rule of law country, they will deal with this in due process and he will be released, you know, shortly. But then I was really in for a surprise. I saw that, you know, traditional rule of law countries and democracies like Sweden and Britain refused to respond to my questions. And I remind you, I’m not a journalist, I’m not an NGO activist, I am a mandated human rights expert, mandated by states, by the United Nations to transmit allegations of torture, so I’m a partner of states, so why wouldn’t they engage in a discussion with me? And I used to work for government, you know, I was a security policy adviser of my own government, you know, I--so I’m an international law professor, so I was really stunned to see that those states refused to cooperate with me, and this really triggered my interest.
CH: Well, you talk about getting to the prison and the difference between visiting Belmarsh and visiting other prisons around the world and the way you were treated.
NM: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the--this already was--you see, this is a message, if someone in my position visits a country, my interlocutor is the foreign minister. I have a courtesy meeting with the minister and then obviously, you know, I will be visiting prisons and the management of the prisons will obviously waiting at the door, they will funnel me through the security. You know, I don’t have to take off my shoes and get my, you know--x-rayed to get into a prison because, I mean, the idea that a UN Special Rapporteur appointed by the United Nations is going to smuggle drugs and weapons into a prison is a bit far-fetched. So--but this is the only prison in the world where I had to, you know, stand in line with family members visiting their, you know, their family members in prison and, you know, and go through all those security checks and get my shoes scanned twice, you know, and the doctor got his pen unscrewed to make sure that, you know, he didn’t smuggle anything. And it was--it was ridiculous, right? And it was a clear signal by the authorities that, you know, you may be the Special Rapporteur on Torture but you’re no one special to us, so you get--don’t get any special treatment. We’re tolerating your visit because you requested to visit but it was already a clear message that, you know, there was no intent at all to respect my conclusions.
CH: Well, you also note in the book that it ate up the time you were supposed to spend with Julian, and then…
CH: You know, we’ll--I want to go back to the, you know, the initial allegations in Sweden, but it all--it--you also got to the prison and the senior staff, including the medical staff, none of them were there even though this visit had been planned long in advance.
NM: Yeah, it had been planned long in advance. I had announced that, you know, I have a medical team with me, that I wanted to see the medical file, that I wanted to talk to the medical officers of the prison, that I wanted to have a bilateral meeting with the prison management. I mean, the director of the prison went home early that day. He didn’t, you know, I never met him. He didn’t, you know, receive me at all. I was just treated like just any family member would have been treated. I came into the prison with more than half an hour delay in a four-hour visit, and, you know, it was clear--the medical staff wasn’t there, there was no doctor available. In a high security prison with more than a thousand inmates, there is no prison doctor present in the UK? It’s not possible. You see? I mean, it was--this is all what I call a soft harassment, you know? It’s basically yes, of course, you’re welcome to visit but, you know, we’re basically withdrawing all our support and facilitation, and trying to provoke me to interrupt the visit myself.
CH: Well, you know what’s fascinating is that when you got ready to make this public statement, charging that this was torture, Julian Assange’s lawyers tried to talk you out of it. And you had a comment in the book about how this, kind of, constant harassment had even affected his legal team.
NM: Yeah. No--yeah, exactly. I mean, there was certainly no bad intention, it’s just I think they were surprised that I just wanted to call a spade a spade, because I didn’t go to Belmarsh expecting to find torture. I brought two doctors with me because I’ve thought I’d have to have independent, you know, medical opinions and two independent ones, and then, I you, know, I--probably he has some medical problems, I’ll make some recommendations, and the Brits will be, you know, cooperating and everything will be fine and I’ll go home. I didn’t expect this to become anything major. But then when both of them warned me and said, “Look, this man shows all the symptoms that are typical for a victim of psychological torture and if he’s not stabilized quickly, this might, you know, enter a downward spiral that really can end up endangering his life. So you really need go to talk to the authorities, they have to stop exposing him to this constant pressure of isolation, arbitrariness, and persecution.” And, you know, this is quite a drastic conclusion. And so when I communicated this to the authorities, they didn’t want to talk to me anymore. But even the legal team, as you said, they were not used to have someone, you know, in an official position actually naming things for what they are. And they said well, you know, perhaps you can also just speak of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment and it might be more easily accepted by the authorities. But so this is--this is clearly speaks to the extent to which even his lawyers have been exposed to this kind of wall of silence and this, you know, inability and unwillingness of the authorities to take responsibility and to respect the law in this case that they themselves were basically surprised by the clarity of my conclusions.
CH: Well, they were also fearful as you’re writing the book because so few people within the establishment are willing to speak out that they, and, of course, they were not wrong, that by making this kind of statement, you yourself could be discredited and they did not want to lose you as an ally. We’re going to take a break. When we come back, we will continue our conversation about the persecution of Julian Assange with Nils Melzer, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and the author of “The Trial of Julian Assange.” Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our conversation about the persecution of Julian Assange with Nils Melzer, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, and the author of “The Trial of Julian Assange.” I just--we were talking about your visit in Belmarsh, and before we go through the exhaustive legal anonymities, distortion of the law, manipulation of evidence, I just want to make clear, which you do in the book, about how he’s treated. So you said every time he’s, of course, physically and psychologically very fragile as anyone would be going through the experience he’s undergone, 10 years of unrelenting surveillance and pressure. But as you write in the book, it’s always an excuse--the excuse to put him in isolation is either that he’s in poor health and they need to take care of him or if he’s in good health, they need to put him under isolation in order to protect him, is that correct?
NM: Well, yeah. I--it was particularly dramatic in 2019 when we visited him, so that was the 9th of May and already in the 18th of May, only nine days later, he really were no--was no longer able to follow his court proceedings and he had to be transferred to the medical division of the prison. But there, he was put in complete isolation, so he was really alone in his cell for 23 hours a day and then for that last hour, he was let out to have a walk if the weather was fine but again, alone. And on his transfer out to the--to the courtyard of the prison, you know, the--their corridors were clear to make sure he had no contact whatsoever with other inmates. And so, the authority said we have to surveil him 24/7 even in his cell and we have to isolate him completely in order to stabilize his health, you know, because he’s really not well. And then once he was, you know, his health improved and he got stabilized, they said, “Well, you know, this proves that this is the right thing for him, it’s good for him so now that’s why we have to continue this treatment.” So it really is clear that the--and he has no history of mental health. Yes, he has been diagnosed with a slight form of autism that’s called Asperger’s, right? That’s what he brings into the story, but that’s not something that is, you know, bad health. It’s just a way of--quite interestingly, a way of--a character of his that has often been criticized as narcissism or that he doesn’t care about other people. That’s not really the, you know, that’s not the reality. The reality is that he has been diagnosed with a slight form of autism and I realized that when I talked to him, I just want to put it out here because it explains why many people don’t like Assange from their personal experience with him because they didn’t know that he has Asperger’s. And people that have Asperger’s, they don’t have any bad intentions but you have to verbalize things that you want from them because they don’t feel, they’re not as sensitive socially as others are. It’s nothing, it’s not--it’s not, you know, a character fault, it’s a medical condition. They just don’t have this antenna out there. And I think many people have condemned him and judged him for, you know, reacting rudely when in fact, he just doesn’t have this sensitivity. And I think that’s important because I--when I interviewed him, I experienced this. I asked him questions and then he would go off and talk about other things, and I always had to, kind of, bring him back to, you know, the thread of conversation to be--to make sure I could actually ask the list of questions I needed him to answer during my investigation. But as soon as I verbalized what I wanted, and that’s very important, he almost, you know, immediately complied and said, “Oh, yeah, of course, yes, sure.” And then he tried to answer my questions. But if I didn’t verbalize it, he just went off and started talking about philosophical topics. And I think this is important because so many, you know, journalists that have worked with him have judged him for his personal behavior or even those women in Sweden, you know, have judged him for lack of sensitivity implying a criminal intent, when in fact, you know, he’s simply someone who has Asperger’s and you need to talk to him if you want a message to pass. So I think I just wanted to put this--to put this out there to be very clear.
CH: Well, I’ve inter…
CH: I’ve interviewed him in--I interviewed him in the embassy and had exactly the same experience you did. I’ve spent several hours with him and I like him.
CH: I find him fascinating and…
CH: …warm and, you know, all of the kind of character assassination doesn’t fit with the person that I know and that you know. I have only six and a half minutes left. I can’t stress how important this book is for anyone who wants to actually get a detailed picture of the campaign against Julian. And as you talk about in the end of the book how this is dangerous for all of us that is replicating of totalitarian structures, the complete inversion, the use of law as an instrument of injustice. Let’s just run through quickly. I mean, unfortunately for the people who orchestrated this, you speak Swedish, you know Swedish, so--and you’re--you know, we’re going to have to just do it, kind of, very, you know, a kind of summary, but you really dismantled this whole case in Sweden. But let’s just talk about some of the anomalies that you detail in the book that I think really, by the end of the book, prove that this--the only--the only phrase for it is a show trial.
NM: Yeah. It’s a persecution. It’s absolutely clear. It’s not prosecution, it’s persecution because the legal institutions are being abused for political purposes. There is no legal case against Julian Assange, you know, you can like him or dislike him, you know, that’s not the question. But there is no criminal case against him whatsoever. I mean, these rape allegations, let me cut it short, you know, there have been manipulation of evidence, there has been collusion, you know, they have, you know, his rights have been gravely violated and I detailed this all in the book. SMS messages that have been classified as secret by the--by the authorities because they prove, you know, things that are embarrassing for the--for the--for the authorities. I’ve been able to read them and I’ve translated them into the book. So you can really see step by step the evidence. But the big story is that all along, the Swedes always said that Julian Assange escaped justice, evaded justice, he was hiding in the embassy because he didn’t want to answer to the case. That’s not true, he tried desperately to answer the case in a way that would protect his human rights because he was afraid the Swedes would send him to US, as they had done with others before, just handed people over to the CIA but then were then tortured in Egypt without any legal process. And so he was afraid that the Swedes would do the same and asked guarantees that they would not extradite him to the US. And they’ve refused to give those guarantees, then he wanted to give a testimony through the phone and video link, as was foreseen in the mutual legal assistance agreement with the UK but the Swedes refused. And they always said we can’t prosecute him because he’s hiding in the embassy. And as soon as he was arrested by the British and he was available to the Swedish for prosecution, they dropped the case and had to admit that they didn’t have enough evidence even to charge him with any crime whatsoever. So this type of behavior…
CH: Well, Nils, you point out in the--you point out in the book it’s the--it’s the issue of the extradition that they needed the case as a cover. And I’m going to butcher her name, but the judge, Arbuthnot, whose husband has ties to the defense industry and, I mean, which was exposed by WikiLeaks, etcetera, who should have immediately recused herself. But she knew the extradition request by the United States was secret, but they needed the Swedish extradition request as a cover and then as soon as he’s dragged out of the British Embassy, the Swedes drop it so that he can go immediately to the United States. In the last three minutes, just tick off the legal anomalies of this case which are numerous.
NM: Well, look, I mean, there is--there is no legal question. Just ask, the first question is what is he being accused of? Look at the US indictment, it’s receiving and publishing secret information that proves war crimes and corruption, I mean is that a crime or is that journalism? Isn’t that protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and Press Freedom? Yes, it is. So that’s not a crime. And so what is he being accused of exactly? Being a narcissist? I mean, not even that, I mean it’s completely absurd. We--first of all, we don’t know what he’s--actually what crime has he committed. And then the other thing is the extradition, I mean, he is being indicted under the Espionage Act. Espionage is the quintessential political offense. The treaty between the US and the UK government on extraditions prohibits explicitly any extradition for political offense so they can’t extradite him lawfully for an espionage charge. Anyway, the other thing is he has been surveilled 24/7 in the Ecuadorian Embassy, his conversations, confidential conversations with lawyers have been taped and videotaped, his medical conversations with his doctors have been taped and videotaped. The CIA we know now from Yahoo! News actually planned his kidnapping, rendition, or even assassination. So, you can’t extradite a person to a country that tried to assassinate or kidnap him or, you know, let him disappear in a black site. You can’t extradite and pursue a criminal proceeding where someone’s confidentiality between lawyer and client confidentiality has been violated. I mean, it--there is an endless chain of grave due process violations and human rights violations in this case. This case can only be thrown out by any judge and it’s a scandal that just a few days ago the British High Court accepted that the US assurances that they will treat him well, which really don’t assure anything when you look at the text precisely, that they are sufficient and that he can now be extradited to the United States. The US has only promised basically three things. First thing is that he will not be sent to Florence, Colorado, the notorious, the most notorious super max in the US but they have not excluded any other of their dozens of super max prisons that they have, that they have said that they will not subject him to special administrative measures, which is one of their many isolation regimes they have. There’s about 50 people in the US under this regime and about 80,000 are in solitary confinement under different regimes, so all those options are still on the table. And also, they said that he--that the US would agree for him to serve a eventual custodial sentence in his native Australia if the Australians want him back, but also only once all of the legal remedies in the US have been exhausted, and we all know this can take, you know, 15 to 20 years. So in effect, those assurances don’t assure anything, it’s a smoke screen, it’s a formality that allows the British judges to, you know, give them an excuse to allow his extradition.
CH: Well, it’s also a slow motion execution in essence. That was Nils Melzer, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture about his new book, “The Trial of Julian Assange: A Story of Persecution.”
NM: Thank you very much.