VIDEO, PODCAST & TRANSCRIPT
The United Nations special rapporteur on torture is warning that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is suffering from the effects of “psychological torture” due to his ongoing detention and threats of possible extradition to the United States.
The U.N. expert, Nils Melzer, also warned that Assange would likely face a “politicized show trial” if he were to be extradited to the United States. Melzer writes, “In 20 years of work with victims of war, violence and political persecution, I have never seen a group of democratic states ganging up to deliberately isolate, demonize and abuse a single individual for such a long time.”
Julian Assange is currently serving a 50-week sentence for skipping bail in 2012 at London’s Belmarsh Prison, after he was forcibly removed from the Ecuadorean Embassy by British police last month. Last week, the U.S. Justice Department announced it was charging Assange with 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act for his role in publishing U.S. classified military and diplomatic documents exposing U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Assange, who had already been charged on one count of hacking a government computer, now faces up to 170 additional years in prison under the new charges—10 years for each count of violating the Espionage Act. Assange was due to appear by video link before a magistrates’ court on Thursday but failed to appear, reportedly due to health problems. Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! speaks with U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer.
By Amy Goodman
Published on Democracy Now!, May 31, 2019
To listen to the podcast, click here
AMY GOODMAN: The United Nations special rapporteur on torture is warning that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is suffering from the effects of psychological torture due to his ongoing detention and threats of possible extradition to the United States. The U.N. expert, Nils Melzer, also warned Assange would likely face a “politicized show trial” if he were to be extradited to the United States. Melzer writes, quote, “In 20 years of work with victims of war, violence and political persecution, I have never seen a group of democratic states ganging up to deliberately isolate, demonize and abuse a single individual for such a long time.” Melzer spoke to reporters this morning in Geneva, Switzerland.
NILS MELZER: And our finding was that Mr. Assange shows all the symptoms of a person who has been exposed to psychological torture for a prolonged period of time. So what we’re speaking about is severe stress and constant stress, a chronic anxiety, severe psychological trauma. The psychiatrists that accompanied my mission said that his state of health is critical, and if he did not get urgent relief, that we would have to expect a rapid deterioration of that state of health, and possibly with irreparable harm.
AMY GOODMAN: Julian Assange is currently serving a 50-week sentence for skipping bail in 2012 at London’s Belmarsh Prison, after he was forcibly removed from the Ecuadorean Embassy, where he lived for seven years, by British police last month.
Last week, the U.S. Justice Department announced it was charging Assange with 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act for his role in publishing U.S. classified military and diplomatic documents exposing U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. The documents were leaked by U.S. Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning. This is the first time a journalist or publisher has been charged under the World War I-era act. Assange, who had already been charged on one count of hacking a government computer, now faces up to 170 additional years in prison in the U.S. under the new charges—10 years for each count of violating the Espionage Act.
Julian Assange was due to appear by video link before a magistrates’ court on Thursday but failed to appear, reportedly due to health problems. Assange’s attorney Jennifer Robinson appeared on Democracy Now! last week and spoke about his deteriorating health.
JENNIFER ROBINSON: I am very concerned about the ongoing health issues that he has and whether he’s getting adequate medical treatment here within the British prison system. He’s finding it very difficult. He’s very isolated. And I think the prospect of a very long extradition fight and potential extradition to the United States is a real concern. But, of course, he is resolved to fight this, as he said at his first extradition hearing. He refused to consent to extradition to the United States, because he would not be extradited for doing journalism. And this case raises—as we’ve seen from the free speech groups that have come out overnight, this case raises fundamental questions of free speech, which is why he is resolved to absolutely fighting this extradition.
AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Geneva, Switzerland, where we’re joined by Nils Melzer, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture.
Welcome to Democracy Now! Why don’t you begin by telling us the results of your report and describing your visit to see Julian Assange at the Belmarsh Prison in London?
NILS MELZER: Thank you, Amy. Well, I did visit Mr. Assange in prison, Belmarsh Prison, on the 9th of May in the company of two medical experts. And my primary concerns really are that I’m extremely worried about his current state of health, which was alarming already when I visited him and which seems to have deteriorated rapidly since then, to the point where he’s no longer even able to stand trial and to participate in court hearings.
I must say that I’m appalled at the sustained and concerted abuse that this man has been exposed to at the hands of several democratic states over a period of almost a decade. And I’m gravely concerned about the prospects of a possible extradition to the United States. As I have indicated this morning in Geneva, I worry that he would be exposed to a politicized show trial in violation of his human rights.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about your role as U.N. special rapporteur on torture. What is the significance of the report you put out? Who pays attention to it? Is it legally binding in any way?
NILS MELZER: No, my role is that of a rapporteur. I have been mandated by the United Nations to report to all U.N. member states about their compliance with the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment. So, I examined this case, and I reported my concerns to the involved governments, which is now primarily the U.K. government but also the Ecuadorean, the United States and the Swedish governments, which have each contributed, in my assessment, to the medical effects that we have observed now.
AMY GOODMAN: Christine Assange, Julian Assange’s mother, tweeted, “The UK Gov is unlawfully slowly killing my son! They made him very ill by refusing him ANYaccess to life sustaining fresh air, exercise, sun/VitD or proper medical care for 6 YEARS of illegal Embassy detention (@UN) Then against ALL medical advice threw him into a prison cell.” She tagged the U.N. in her post. Talk about your visit with him. Talk about the time he was in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London. He was there for almost seven years, was not able to go outside because the British government said they would arrest him if he did.
NILS MELZER: Yes. Well, I think it’s very important to say that I went to the prison with two very experienced and specialized medical experts, so experts that are specialized in examining and identifying and documenting symptoms of torture—physical torture or psychological torture. And we ran medical protocols, called the Istanbul Protocol, which are recognized protocols to examine torture victims, to have an objective medical assessment.
So, Mr. Assange showed all the symptoms that are typical for persons that have been exposed to prolonged psychological torture. My assessment is that Mr. Assange has been exposed to various forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment that cumulatively have the same effect as psychological torture.
Now, because Mr. Assange has been confined to a very controlled environment for about seven years, with very little outside influence, it is possible to identify the causal relationship between the medical symptoms and the actual causes of the symptoms with a high degree of certainty. Now, our conclusions are that, first of all, it is the concerted effort of various states to hand him over to the United States which is a bit of the elephant in the room. That’s the one fear he has had since 2010, when he first published large amounts of compromising information about the United States. And soon after, he was then exposed to a relentless campaign of judicial persecution, I’d say, because it is an abuse of the judicial system in order to try to extradite him to the U.S. and get him to be prosecuted for a row of offenses, as we have now seen, under the Espionage Act. I believe that Mr. Assange has a credible case and a credible fear that he would not get a fair trial in the United States, that he would not be safe and protected from the types of detention and treatment that would violate the Convention Against Torture.
So, he has, in the same time—at the same time, from 2010, then increasingly been exposed to a public campaign of—or, a campaign of public mobbing, I would say, mobbing, vilification and intimidation, ranging from deliberate ridicule to insults and up to, actually, open calls for his assassination and murder, without the governments, the concerned governments, ever interfering and trying to protect him from this type of unacceptable threats.
Now, all of these elements have contributed, obviously, to a level of stress and anxiety that would be unbearable for anyone. But on top of this, when the new government was elected in Ecuador in 2017, the last government that had actually provided him with refuge and protection turned against him and started to deliberately harass him in order to get him to leave the embassy and/or to trigger a health crisis that would justify his expulsion to a British hospital, and therefore to British jurisdiction. So all these elements have resulted in a medical picture and symptoms that are tantamount to what psychological torture would produce over a prolonged period.
AMY GOODMAN: The British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt has responded to your report by saying, quote, “This is wrong. Assange chose to hide in the embassy and was always free to leave and face justice. The UN Special Rapporteur should allow British courts to make their judgments without his interference or inflammatory accusations.” Nils Melzer, your response?
NILS MELZER: Well, I—actually, I have responded to him. And I said that, “With all due respect, sir, but Mr. Assange was about as free to leave as someone who is sitting on a rubber boat in a shark pool.”
I believe it is important to see that the Swedish prosecution, the Ecuadorean authorities and also the U.K. judicial authorities so far have not shown the impartiality and objectivity that is required under the rule of law. He has been expelled from the Ecuadorean Embassy without any due process of law, and we’re talking about the formal lifting of an asylum status and the suspension of his nationality citizenship, which normally would not be done, obviously, by a president on a unilateral decision, but this would be a court proceeding where the defendant or the concerned person would have a right to defend himself.
The way the Swedish prosecution has been conducted also shows that Mr. Assange was not given the opportunity to defend himself properly in public against allegations of sexual offense without at the same time having to expose himself to a possible extradition to the United States, which obviously is not related to the sexual offenses. But he was not given the opportunity to do so. So, for 10 years, his reputation and credibility and his human dignity have been gravely affected by these allegations, and the Swedish prosecution deliberately prevented him from actually taking an official position against that.
Now, in the U.K. courts, we have seen a similar type of bias. The same day he was dragged out of the embassy after more than six years, on the same day, he was pulled into a U.K. court. He was given, reportedly, less than 15 minutes with his defense lawyer to prepare a defense, and then, in a very short hearing, was convicted for bail violation. And the judge even insulted him as being a narcissist who cannot get beyond himself. Now, as a lawyer, having worked at court myself, I cannot imagine how a judge could come to such a conclusion, when the defendant didn’t say anything else in that hearing than “I plead not guilty.”
So, I believe we have to take a step back and look at all these proceedings, how they have been conducted, and come to our own conclusions whether these are fair. We also have to take a step back and look at this whole narrative of suspected rapist; narcissist; selfish, ungrateful person; hacker, and scratch the surface a little bit and see what’s below there. When I was first approached by his defense team to—seeking protection from my mandate in December last year, I was reluctant to do so, because, me, too, I had been affected by this prejudice that I had absorbed through all these public, you know, narratives spread in the media over the years. And only when I scratched the surface a little bit, I saw how little foundation there was to back this up and how much fabrication and manipulation there is in this case. So I encourage everybody to really look below the surface in this case.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Nils Melzer, what Julian Assange would face in this country, in the United States, if he were extradited here, a country that has the death penalty? Talk about the trial, what you see—you’ve talked about the elephant in the room.
NILS MELZER: Yes, I’m gravely, gravely concerned. I’m almost, you know, certain that he would not get a safe—a fair trial and a safe treatment in the United States. The public prejudice, including on the part of former and current officials in the United States, has been so predominant for several years now, and so that it would be almost impossible to have an impartial court hearing where he could actually be heard of his concerns. When we see the charges that have been added now, recently, under the Espionage Act, most of them really relate to activities that any investigative journalist is conducting every day. So, it’s really a reason for concern for press freedom around the world.
Then, we are also, with the United States, unfortunately, dealing with a country that in the last 20 years has not shown to be consistent in enforcing the prohibition of torture with its own officials. We can speak to the Senate committee report that has not led to a single prosecution, contrary to their obligations under the Convention Against Torture. Obviously, the “Collateral Murder” video has not led to any prosecutions, either. The only person that is being prosecuted here seems to be the one that actually exposed all of these crimes. And so, in this type of context, it is almost not conceivable that a person like Mr. Assange could ever be acquitted and ever get a fair court trial.
AMY GOODMAN: And any kind of guarantee that he would not receive the death penalty?
NILS MELZER: Well, I would expect the United States to respect its own assurances. But, you know, the death penalty is one concern. But, on the other hand, if someone gets sentenced to basically life without parole or 170 or 180 years in prison, which would be equivalent to that, for having conducted investigative journalism, then that really would amount, in itself, to a cruel and unusual punishment. I would say that would be in violation of international law, but also of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, what are you calling for, Nils Melzer?
NILS MELZER: Well, I think, first of all, the four countries that I appealed to, that I’ve written formal letters to, should recognize that the way they handled this affair violated the Convention Against Torture, that they have to stop in their tracks, they have to really investigate the circumstances that led to this situation, and then also, obviously, take measures for remedy.
If Mr. Assange really has committed a criminal offense, obviously he will have to respond for that. But then he has to be given the chance to develop a defense, have sufficient contact with his lawyers and receive the guarantees that his human rights are really protected. He cannot be tried in an environment that is severely prejudiced and shows only bias against him.
My personal recommendation would simply be to release him, because he has already suffered enough. But, as a lawyer, I can acknowledge that there may be a formal requirement to conduct certain proceedings. But it is extremely important that his human rights are now being respected, that there is an independent observation of how these trials are being conducted, and especially that his medical state of health be stabilized and he’s given sufficient time to recover, to regain strength, to be able to face whatever he has to face.
AMY GOODMAN: And again, those four countries, United States, Britain, Ecuador and Sweden, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer has accused them of “collective persecution.” Nils Melzer, I want to thank you very much for being with us, U.N. special rapporteur or torture, human rights chair of the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, professor of international law at University of Glasgow and author of several books on international law.