Democracy Dies in The Old Bailey
The Washington Post’s tag-line is ‘Democracy Dies in Darkness,’ this is posed without irony at the top if their website, where the user is faced with a paywall, and must agree to be tracked and monitored before you can access any articles. This quote is obviously a riff on Thomas Jefferson, however a more modern take can be attributed to the father of the World Wide Web, whose creation you are currently using.
“We could say we want the Web to reflect a vision of the world where everything is done democratically, where we have an informed electorate and accountable officials. To do that we get computers to talk with each other in such a way as to promote that ideal.” – Tim Berners Lee
It is a lofty goal for the Internet, and one that inspired quite a number of it’s advocates. These two elements, an informed electorate, who require information to be available and reported accurately, coupled with the ability to hold officials to account. The former is the call of this article and the latter the response.
For the last four weeks the extradition trial of Julian Assange has been ongoing in the Old Bailey in London. It may be time reappraise our preconceived notions and received wisdom, and attempt to step back and consider what this trial is really about. It is based on a US indictment which focuses on the operations and actions of Wikileaks. The purpose of the proceedings in London is to whether Julian Assange can be extradited to the US to face this indictment. It is important to consider what Wikileaks did and it’s purpose.
“Wikileaks is a giant library of the world’s most persecuted documents. We give asylum to these documents, we analyze them, we promote them and we obtain more.” – Julian Assange
What Wikileaks did in line with the statement above was to provide a means for whistleblowers to release information to the general public, along with the ability to communicate that information. These two actions, which produces an informed electorate, is also embodied in the the US indictment against Julian Assange, however, in the indictment it is considered espionage. This is the same charge as was used against Daniel Ellsberg who released the Pentagon Papers, who we will hear from later.
Shining a light on states
In 2010 Wikileaks released a video called Collateral Murder, it is a window to the reality of American foreign intervention. It showed raw video footage and live communication from an attack helicopter in Iraq, where the operator gunned down a group of civilians, Reuter’s journalists, and first responders. It was not known at the time that there were two children in the van with the first responders, when the ground troops arrived and this was discovered the response was ‘Well it’s their fault bringing their kids to a battle.’ It is harrowing to watch. The incident was not revealed to Reuters when they attempted to investigate, and it was concluded by the military that this was within the ‘Rules of Engagement’. The truth regarding this event was only exposed when this video was leaked to Wikileaks by Chelsea Manning and released to the public.
This leak was followed by major document releases in the same year, the Afghan and Iraq War logs which consisted of over 300,000 reports on the war and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq dating from 2004 to 2010 followed by The Guantanamo Files in 2011, US Diplomatic Cables in 2016 and many others. Some of these document have since been entered as evidence in UK courts and have been used in courts around the world to aid in restitution for victims of torture.
Khalid El-Masri is a German citizen who happened to share the name of wanted terrorist, he was kidnapped at the Macedonian border in 2003, renditioned by the CIA to Afghanistan, tortured then released in Albania after being told never to mention what had happened to him. He made it back to Germany in 2004. After years fighting for recognition of what happened to him, it was only after the CableGate release in 2011 which showed that justice for Khalid had been sidelined and frustrated by US interference. In 2012 a judgement in The European court of Human Rights, with evidence from Wikileaks, held Macedonia responsible for his torture an ill treatment, which happened when he was handed over to the CIA, no-one in that organisation has yet been held accountable. In this case the court had argued “the concept of state-secret has often been invoked to obstruct the search for the truth.”
These examples highlight the outcome of leaks aided by Wikileaks, they were supplied by courageous whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning, sentenced to 32 years in the US. Whistleblowers only make the information available, the next step was to make this information accessible and accurate, so it can then be used to inform action and hold power to account. The Afghan and Iraq War logs were not published by Wikileaks alone, at the time they received most of their public exposure due to collaboration with major newspapers. The Guardian, New York Times, Der Spiegel amongst others. Some of these collaborations eventually fell apart. For this brief period they were all engaged in the same ideal, accurately informing the electorate, the ideal shared by Jefferson and Berners Lee. One event that happened at this time was the disclosure of the unredacted War Logs. The purpose of redaction is to protect identified person in the documents, to prevent individual retribution if their involvement becomes known.
It is important to understand how this the unredacted War Logs came to be released. An encrypted archive of the War Logs were mirrored across the internet so access to the archive could be ensured. The reason for this was to prevent against ‘Denial Of Service’ attacks which would hinder access to the archive if it was only hosted at one location. Along with that if anything were to happen to Assange a password which could unlock the logs was given to David Leigh at the Guardian. Leigh later published this password in a book with Luke Harding in mid 2011. In September of 2011 the unredacted cables found their way onto the site Cryptome, another leaking website, It will likely never be known if this was a result of the password disclosure by Leigh and Harding. Only after the Cryptome release, Wikileaks also published the unredacted logs.
Considering the redacted War Logs, Wikileaks worked in collaboration with major newspapers, who also provided support around ensuring the accuracy of the information, that redaction was done correctly and the publishing of the information contained in the leaks. This relationship put these media outlets in conflict with powerful states and institutions which were exposed and embarrassed by the the leaks. Due to this being a collaboration it would be difficult to take legal action against any individual organisation without challenging the work of all of them. This fact seems to be ignored in the current US indictment.
States make it personal
The UN has a position of Special Rapporteur on Torture, their purpose is to report and track cases of possible torture. The current UN Special Rapporteur on Torture is Nils Melzer, Swiss academic and professor of international law at Glasgow University. He was first asked to look into the case of Julian Assange in 2018, after Assange had been in the Ecuadorian Embassy for six years. He turned this request down, because he had was busy and in his own words “I had this almost subconscious perception of him as a rapist, narcissist, spy and hacker”. In 2019 he was asked again if he would take up the case. This time he questioned his visceral reaction, he hadn’t dealt with Wikileaks and had not met Assange and couldn’t find an “objective basis” for his negative opinions of Assange.
Everyone is aware that although there were allegations of rape, there was never any charges brought against Assange, it is advisable to read the UN Rapporteur’s interview in Republik on this issue. When the UN Rapporteur chose to investigate Assange’s situation, a cascade of events happened which the UN Rapporteur describes as “really strange”. During this time the Swedish investigation was unceremoniously dropped. This resulted in a stalemate, with none of the involved states including Sweden and the UK entering into any meaningful dialogue with the UN Rapporteur.
In the first week of April 2019 the UN Rapporteur officially requested Ecuador to freeze the situation, with his intention to visit Assange on the 25th of April. He also asked UK not to extradite Assange if he entered their jurisdiction. Despite the UN Rapporteur’s intervention and specific request, on the 8th of April Assange’s asylum and Ecuadorian nationality was revoked and was taken from the Embassy “all without due process” . He was then convicted of criminal offence in a summary hearing, personally insulted by the a judge, and placed in a Belmarsh prison.
After visiting Assange in Belmarsh it is the UN Rapporteur’s opinion that Assange has been tortured, he defines it as a form of psychological torture. This was verified by two independent experts and was due to the constant threat of extradition to a foreign country where “he will with certainty be exposed to a politicized show trial, deprived of his human dignity and due process rights, and then imprisoned in cruel, inhuman and degrading conditions for the rest of his life.” Also throughout this process he has been isolated in the Embassy, spied upon, humiliated and demonised in the press, he was never charged with rape yet this is one of the most common characterisations of him.
Considering what we have above, an organisation, Wikileaks, which has exposed war-crimes by and corruption in the US, rape allegations, the publication of a password, unredacted disclosures which could potentially put people at risk, causing a espionage indictment and extradition. This could be seen as some type of conspiracy theory. It would be helpful if we had the ability to see into these organisations to better explain this. For example Stratfor which was subject to a leak in 2012, in one email dated December 2010:
“Let’s say the following scenario happens. Assange is arrested and extradicted to Sweden to face rape charges. Wikileaks releases the password to the insurance files. Would he not then be directly endangering U.S. and other country intelligence professionals? Would it not then be possible to prosecute him for espionage?”
That could be considered prophetic in 2010, if Stratfor was not an intelligence contractor with links to US intelligence services.
Returning to the work of Wikileaks which is the substance of the US indictment against Assange. 17 out of the 18 charges involve espionage and one is regarding an allegation of helping Chelsea Manning break a password to cover her tracks. The 17 charges of espionage are political offences. The Espionage Act is there to prevent espionage, the providing of secrets to a foreign power. Whereas what Wikileaks does, is provide information to the public, including the populations who need this information to hold their official to account, recall the collateral murder video and Khalid El-Masri.
The extradition trial is ongoing in the Old Bailey, and given the information above you may be surprised that you have not heard more news of it. To explain the implications of this case we can listen to Daniel Ellsberg, who released the Pentagon Papers:
“if Julian is extradited to the United States to face these charges for doing the journalism that he has, the charges that are made against him, no journalist in the world is safe from life imprisonment in the United States of America.”
The possible outcome of this trial in setting precedence, is a direct attack on the free press and the public’s right to know.
The UN Rapporteur and a group of legal professionals have also highlighted questionable judicial irregularities in the proceedings. To explain the indictment, Lawyers for Assange released an open letter, signed by over 170 lawyers and Associations which highlights their concerns.
- The lawful nature of extradition due to the risk of torture in the US, a right enshrined in Article 8 of the ECHR (European Convention of Human Rights)
- The political nature of the indictment, where extradition of prohibited under the UK-US Extradition treaty. The judge and prosecution are attempting to disregard this by basing the extradition on the Extradition Act which is of subsidiary importance to the treaty, this move also is in contradiction to the European Convention on Extradition, the UN Model Treaty on Extradition, and every bilateral treaty ratified by the US for over a century.
- Assange has been denied time and facilities to prepare his defence, he was also denied access to the indictment for several weeks after it had been presented.
- Violations of the freedom of the press and the right to know, the espionage charges effectively criminalises investigative journalism, enshrined in Article 10 of ECHR
- Judicial Conflicts of interest, Emma Arbuthnot, the Chief Magistrate in the case has been shown to have financial links to individuals and institutions whose wrongdoings have been exposed by Wikileaks, yet she has refused to recuse herself, which casts doubt on the impartiality of the proceedings.
This list not comprehensive but indicates the distribution of judicial violations in this case, and has resulted in the UN Rapporteur calling the process ‘irreparably arbitrary’.
Holding to Account
Is this trial and extradition retribution on the embarrassment Wikileaks caused the US or a response to Julian Assange’s character?
If you believe Julian Assange is a “narcissist who cannot get beyond his own selfish interests” as he was labelled at his trial in The Old Bailey by District Judge Michael Snow, displaying his impartiality. Does this distract from the importance placed on this trial by Denial Ellsberg over press freedom, The UN Rapporteur on Torture Nils Mlezer regarding the torture of Julian Assange, and 170+ Legal professionals who have concerns over the judicial impartiality of the court. Along with the work of Wikileaks exposing criminality, war-crimes and corruption.
Returning to the principle of an informed electorate, what is on trial here is the right to know. Wikileaks provided a means for the whistleblowers to make information available. Initially the mainstream press were happy with their role to report accurately but have now pulled back for whatever reason, and engaged in a campaign of disinformation or silence, you can identify them by their work. The press is playing a dangerous game in this, taking another quote from Daniel Ellsberg speaking to Amy Goodman at Democracy Now:
“If Julian is extradited, as I say, as you said, it will lead to prosecution here [the US], and probably conviction, … he will be the first journalist and publisher [prosecuted], but not the last. New York Times probably won’t be the second, either; it might be the third or the fourth”.
The media may not realise the reality of what is happening, or worse think it does not effect them, but what it does demolish is an informed electorate, and with it any semblance of justice and democracy, not just in the US but in every country under it’s influence. Julian Assange is not an US-American, was not in the United States when any of this was done, yet held to a US law. If he is convicted in a US court, it will demonstrate he does not have protection under the First Amendment of the US Constitution ‘freedom of speech’. Whether your opinion on Assange is positive or negative, what is required now is to hold officials to account, what we need to do is speak up for the children in the collateral murder video, Khalid El-Masri, and Wikileaks.
Remember of the prose of Martin Niemöller:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out-
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out-
Because I was not a trade unionists.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out-
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.
In the new world of Tim Berners Lee’s internet they are first coming for the journalists, because they understand that “Democracy Dies in Darkness”, it is time to hold officials to account.