Shortly before Assange’s arrest in London Thursday morning, we spoke to former National Lawyers Guild president Marjorie Cohn about Manning’s refusal to testify against Assange and the precarious situation Assange is in
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
After 28 days in solitary confinement, or what the system terms administrative segregation, Chelsea Manning was finally moved to a general population area two days ago. She is being held at Truesdale Detention Center in Alexandria, Virginia. All this is according to her own Twitter handle, which is obviously being managed for her; she has a whistleblower support group called Chelsea Resists. It’s been two years since Chelsea Manning was first released after she served seven years for exposing U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Chelsea Manning was jailed once more for refusing to answer questions before a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange.
Joining me today to discuss all of this is Marjorie Cohn. She’s an emerita Professor of Law at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, California, and a former president of the National Lawyers Guild. Marjorie, good to have you here with us.
MARJORIE COHN: Thanks for having me, Sharmini.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Marjorie, let’s start off with why is Chelsea Manning being held? What is it that she refused to do, as far as the grand jury is concerned?
MARJORIE COHN: Chelsea Manning was subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury ostensibly investigating Julian Assange, the co-founder of WikiLeaks, regarding the documents that she had provided to WikiLeaks, documents that were evidence of war crimes by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. Chelsea Manning maintains that when she pled guilty to those offenses, to providing the information to Wikileaks, she told the grand jury everything she had to say. WikiLeaks never urged her to turn over more documents to them, and she is refusing to testify. Now, the prosecutor has offered her immunity from prosecution, so she is unable to claim the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, because if she has immunity from prosecution, she can’t be incriminating herself. So she has said that she will not testify and is invoking her constitutional rights under the First, Fourth, and Sixth Amendments.
So she refused to testify, the judge held her in contempt, and she is now jailed for the life of the grand jury. And usually grand juries last for about 18 months, or until she decides to testify, which she probably will not. She is standing on principle here. Meanwhile, while she’s been in custody, she was held in solitary confinement for 28 days. Now, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, prolonged solitary confinement is anything longer than 15 days, and prolonged solitary confinement constitutes cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, which is prohibited under the Convention Against Torture. And it also may constitute torture as well. The special rapporteur on torture has said that prolonged solitary confinement can cause certain changes in brain functions, harmful psychological effects, and it must always be prohibited.
Now, keep in mind, Sharmini, that in 2016, when Chelsea Manning was serving her sentence, she twice tried to commit suicide. And she was held in solitary confinement at that time and humiliated by being subjected to forced nudity for inspection. For the first 11 months of her incarceration, she was forced to stand nude for inspection, which was humiliating and degrading treatment, also a violation of U.S. law. So she is now being subjected–or until she was released on, I believe, it was the seventh of April she was released from solitary confinement–but continuing to suffer this cruel, unusual, and degrading treatment and torture the second time. She has already served her sentence, but now she is being punished again for standing on principle and refusing to testify before the grand jury.
SHARMINI PERIES: Marjorie, connect for us what’s going on with Chelsea Manning and this grand jury inquiry, and Julian Assange, who’s being held in London at the Ecuadorian Embassy. At least he’s being contained there, he cannot leave because of fear of being arrested.
MARJORIE COHN: Yes. The U.S. government has been gunning for Assange since 2010, when WikiLeaks published the documents that Chelsea Manning leaked. These were the documents that were evidence of U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. And under the prior Ecuadoran president, Rafael Correa, who was sympathetic to Assange, he was allowed to stay in the embassy. There is now a new president, Lenin Moreno, who is would like to release Assange. And the problem is that if Assange is released from the Ecuadorian Embassy, the British government has already said it will arrest him on a warrant, Failure to Appear warrant, and he will in all likelihood be extradited to the United States. There’s a secret indictment against Assange in the United States.
But the Obama government hesitated in arresting or indicting Julian Assange–I guess they couldn’t arrest him until he was actually there–but indicting Julian Assange, because they were concerned that this would also mean they would have to indict the New York Times, The Washington Post, Der Spiegel, I believe the UK Guardian, other papers that eventually did publish some of these documents that Chelsea Manning leaked. And according to Charlie Savage of the New York Times, the reason the Obama administration did not indict Julian Assange was because they were worried about how that would impact freedom of expression. Now, we don’t know what the indictment against Assange contains, but the U.S. government would love to get their hands on him. And if he is released from the Ecuadorian Embassy, in all likelihood he will be extradited to the United States.
Now, this extradition to the United States when he has applied for asylum is illegal. People have a right to apply for asylum. You can’t be blackmailed into giving up your right to asylum. And in fact, there is a prohibition in the Convention Against Torture–which the United States has ratified, it’s part of U.S. law–and that means that a government is forbidden from turning someone over to a government where he will likely be subjected to persecution or torture. So if the British government were to turn Julian Assange over to the U.S. government, that would violate the Convention Against Torture. Also, the UN special rapporteur on torture has said that if Assange is expelled from the Ecuadorian embassy, that would be a violation–serious violation–of several of his human rights, including the right to freedom of expression, the right to a fair trial, due process, and the prohibition against cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Marjorie, we are going to leave it there for now, but for those of you who are interested in continuing this conversation, please join us for segment two with Marjorie Cohn.