Anatomy of a Show Trial — Julian and the Gangster State

Julian Assange’s extradition hearing may be the most important court case in modern history regarding press freedom and the right of the public to know what their elected representatives are doing. If the US are allowed to extradite Assange for publishing state secrets and dispatch him to a supermax prison for the rest of his life, a new precedent will be set that will pave the way for prosecuting any person anywhere in the world who discloses what our governments do behind closed doors. Declassified’s Matt Kennard puts the matter starkly: “The most powerful country in the world are exerting the right to pluck any foreign citizen, put them in a supermax prison for the rest of their life, merely for publishing information that government doesn’t like. That should terrify everyone.”

Yet newspapers and broadcasters, despite the obvious implications this has for their profession, and despite having shown great interest in Julian for years, have been deafening in their silence over the key details of the case as it unfolded. This is even more striking because the hearing itself has been marked by corruption and abuse of due process on a scale that is quite astonishing.

The below five points try to be as brief and direct as possible in showing this, drawing on the work of others who witnessed events in the courtroom directly. They are difficult to reconcile with the common belief that we live in a free country with a functioning legal system, under which everyone has the right to a fair trial.

1. Assange spent his extradition hearing caged behind a glass screen away from his lawyers, unable to communicate with them confidentially. He was also denied proper access to his lawyers before the hearing, and to the legal documents he needed to defend himself.

Assange was kept in a glass box at the back of the courtroom, as judge Baraitser refused repeated requests for him to sit with his legal team in the body of the court, as a defendant normally would. His lawyer Jen Robinson explains: “Julian was required to sit in that glass box. So, it was impossible for us to take confidential instructions from him… it took, often, people having to wave, and catch the lawyers' attention… and he has to whisper to us, in ways that the prosecution, sitting next to us, can absolutely hear what he was saying.”

This denial of the right to communicate with his lawyers was not just confined to the courtroom. Robinson adds:

2. Numerous highly respected NGO observers, including Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders and PEN International were refused permission to observe proceedings by the judge, both physically and from watching online, while only five people were allowed into the public gallery.

In any free society, it is a basic principle that justice must be seen to be done openly, and important trials in the public interest are visible and transparent. In a democratic country like ours, we would all take it as a given that independent accredited monitors would be welcomed and permitted to report directly what is happening in the courtroom. Yet this hearing has been conducted in such a way as to limit public access and scrutiny as much as possible.

Rebecca Vincent from Reporters Without Borders (RSF) points out how abnormal this all is:

Former British ambassador Craig Murray was one of five people that managed to access a public gallery that could hold forty. He notes that others, like journalist John Pilger and Wikileaks editor Kristin Hrafnsson, “were shunted into the adjacent court 9 where a very small number were permitted to squint at a tiny screen, on which the sound was so inaudible John Pilger simply left.”

On the morning of the judge’s verdict, RSF’s Rebecca Vincent, having spent five hours queuing through the night as instructed, tweeted from outside the court, describing harassment she faced from police attempting to block her entry:

3. Julian faces up to 175 years in solitary confinement, under conditions described by the warden of the supermax prison he would be held in as “hell on earth” and “not built for humanity”.

If extradited, Assange is looking at a sentence of up to 175 years in ADX Florence, Colorado, where solitary confinement is virtually guaranteed.

Under SAMs (Special Administrative Measures): “Assange would be kept in a small cell for 22 or 23 hours a day and not allowed to meet any other prisoners. He would be allowed out once a day for brief exercise or recreation… but shackled” in another small, empty concrete room. American Attorney Eric Lewis testified at the hearing that, despite the prosecution’s attempts to deny it, SAMs absolutely is solitary confinement:

Former warden of ADX Robert Hood told CNN in 2015 that conditions there are “in my opinion, far worse than death… The architecture of the building is the control. You’re designing it so the inmates can’t see the sky, intentionally.”

Craig Murray reflects:

Ultimately, it was the horrifying conditions of US supermax prisons, coupled with Assange’s history of depression and the high risk of suicide that prevented Judge Baraitser from approving extradition in January. Yet the judge endorsed every one of the US government arguments in her verdict, choosing not to extradite purely on health grounds. Judge Baraitser then went on to deny Julian bail as the US make their appeal, choosing to keep him at Belmarsh in near total isolation, where he was denied his winter clothes, suffering conditions described by over 60 medical doctors and the UN’s special rapporteur on torture, who examined Julian in person, as “prolonged psychological torture”.

4. The court heard that the US government prosecuting Assange went to extraordinary lengths to criminally spy on him and his lawyers. They recorded meetings with his legal counsel, burgled the headquarters of his Spanish lawyers, and openly discussed the possibility of kidnapping and poisoning him.

One of the most stunning moments in court was the testimony of two witnesses, one of whom explained that while Assange was in the Ecuadorian embassy, they carried out criminal surveillance on him and his lawyers, recording his privileged conversations and sharing them directly with US intelligence. Witness 2, who worked for UC Global, the firm managing security at the embassy, admitted not only direct participation in bugging the embassy with hidden microphones and cameras, live-streaming audio and video of Assange directly to US intelligence servers, but that his company went so far as to break into the offices of his Spanish lawyer Baltazar Garzon, stealing privileged lawyer-client material, and openly discussed the prospect of kidnapping or poisoning Julian.

These testimonies were neither challenged nor tested by the prosecution or the judge, and are supported by ample physical evidence that the witness refers to. In any serious court proceeding, even a fraction of these details would quickly cause the entire case to be thrown out with prejudice, as happened in Daniel Ellsberg’s case in 1968.

Here are a few extracts from the testimony of Witness 2:

The fact that the case has not been simply halted and dismissed on these grounds alone is difficult to explain. The prosecuting government were revealed to have been stealing and spying on legally privileged material, carrying out criminal surveillance on defence counsel and contemplated assassinating the defendant. It is worth repeating that nobody in the court contradicted or challenged this witness testimony. Rather, proceedings were moved on by the court, as if nothing of any real gravity had been said. In her verdict, the judge made brief mention of the UC Global testimony, deciding farcically that since this evidence is part of an ongoing case being brought in Spain, she cannot take it into account.

On top of which, the US government themselves admitted in court — as Murray points out — that Julian’s legal files in the Ecuadorian embassy, clearly marked as legally privileged, were handed over to the American authorities by Ecuador when he was arrested. In any genuine hearing, such an admission by itself should lead the case to collapse.

5. The hearing has been riddled with other irregularities and abuses of process, including the last minute altering of the charges with a new, revised indictment (and no extra time granted for the defence to prepare), and the judge’s refusal to hear key evidence.

This point draws heavily on the reporting of former British diplomat Craig Murray, one of the few who managed to get into the court each day and document what was happening. Murray details a catalogue of irregularities, naked bias and denial of basic rights that one would not expect to find in the courtrooms of a democratic country.

Possibly the most extreme example is the fact that the US government were allowed at the last minute to change their case and submit a new ‘second superseding indictment’, “long after the hearing [was] underway” and opening arguments had already been heard. To add to this, Julian’s legal team were refused an adjournment to prepare a defence to these new charges, on the grounds that they previously had an opportunity to ask for more time. Assange’s solicitor submitted a witness statement explaining the problems with these new allegations, and why they have not had the time to properly respond to them. The judge refused to admit that evidence.

Craig Murray notes that over and over again, the defence’s witnesses were sent huge bundles of evidence merely hours before they were to be questioned on it:

He describes how the judge ruled that defence witnesses were to have a half-hour limit on their testimony, while the prosecution had as many hours as they pleased to cross examine them. Initially, Judge Baraitser proposed that to save time, there was no need to hear the defence witnesses at all, because they had already submitted evidence in writing. Murray comments:

Reporting Failures

It is worth remembering that we are talking about somebody who is accused of nothing but revealing state secrets to the public, while those who Wikileaks exposed as having participated in real atrocities, including massacres, torture, rape and other war crimes, are untouched and not even considered. What matters is that Assange is challenging the holy right to lie and kill in service of the state, which is an intolerable crime.

One might ask how often the above facts have been reported in mainstream news at all, let alone discussed in detail or given any kind of headline coverage. Take for instance the rather striking fact that the US government prosecuting Assange criminally spied on his legally privileged meetings, as the court heard, attempted to steal the nappy of a baby suspected to be his son’s, and broke into his lawyers’ office to steal privileged information. Looking through the archives of BBC News for instance, there does not seem to be a single phrase referring to this fact, let alone comment about how curious it is that proceedings have not since been thrown out, that there is plainly no chance of a fair trial under such circumstances.*¹

Declassified UK have now published seven articles uncovering evidence of gross undeclared conflicts of interest in this case, including the fact that the Chief Magistrate overseeing the case, Lady Arbuthnot, is deeply embedded in the UK political and intelligence establishment. Her husband is Tory ex-defence minister Lord Arbuthnot; both were revealed to have direct “financial links to institutions and individuals exposed by WikiLeaks”. Moreover, Lady Arbuthnot herself received financial benefits from partner organisations of the UK Foreign Office that in 2018 described Assange as a “miserable little worm”. A third piece reveals that Arbuthnot’s son is “the vice-president and cyber-security adviser of a firm heavily invested in a company founded by GCHQ and MI5 which seeks to stop data leaks”.

None of these stories have been picked up by the BBC, The Guardian, or any mainstream news outlets.

When Assange was dragged out of the Ecuadorian embassy and charged with jumping bail, the district judge under Arbuthnot’s supervision found him guilty within three hours of arrest, calling him a “narcissistic personality” — after Julian had said nothing in the court apart from “not guilty”.

Far From Over

Caitlin Johnstone does a wonderful job of dismantling one by one, the common public smears levelled at Assange in the media, including the familiar claim that he is a rapist*², a Russian asset, and not a real journalist. Yet despite how easily these talking points collapse as soon as they are looked at closely, they are still very effective in creating a toxic atmosphere around their target, and making people uncomfortable about supporting them publicly. The UN’s special rapporteur for torture, Nils Melzer, is admirably candid about his own assumptions when first asked to look at the case in his official capacity, being susceptible as we all are to the widespread negative coverage about Assange:

Matt Kennard, reflecting on this, encourages people to just look at the case themselves, rather than relying on mainstream news to impart the key facts:

This case is a crucial moment, and it is one that the UK public can directly shape the outcome of. The US has openly argued in court that they have the right to prosecute anyone who publishes US classified information anywhere in the world. Yet these British judges are public servants, and the state’s ability to get away with torturing a journalist and subjecting them to a political show trial is reliant on much of the public being uninformed about it. The outpouring of public resistance to these proceedings that we’ve seen over the last two years, including the emergence of groups like Don’t Extradite Assange, Doctors for Assange, Lawyers for Assange and many others, may well play a key role in saving his life, and preventing basic journalistic practices from becoming criminalised.

This is clearly not just about one person, especially when we consider the chilling attempt by the UK government to pass a new law that greets peaceful protest with 10 year sentences, and the recent use of calculated police violence against people protesting this law. While fascism has become a frequently used word in recent years, if the Assange precedent is set, and publishing the truth is allowed to become a crime, we are heading to a very dark place. We in the UK live in the most important jurisdiction in the world to stop that from happening.

(Footnote)*¹[1] Peter Oborne and Millie Cooke investigated the curious media silence over the case, highlighting massive reporting failures of the BBC, The New Statesman, The Economist, and others. They noted some exceptions, such as The Observer, The Mail on Sunday and The Independent, who did report some of the uncomfortable facts.

*² Lisa Longstaff from the group ‘Women Against Rape’ also gave a powerful speech responding directly to the claim that Assange has been hiding from rape charges.

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