Filmmaker John Pilger attended Julian Assange’s last court hearing and observed not only that Assange is visibly suffering from prison mistreatment, but his defense is not being given a fair chance to make its case against his extradition to the US.
GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Arlington, Virginia.
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Julian Assange recently lost a court bid to have his upcoming February 2020 extradition hearing postponed. The hearing about the postponement took place on October 21, and according to observers who were present, he could barely speak in coherent sentences. Reacting to the hearing, UN Human Rights Rapporteur Nils Melzer warned last Friday that Assange continues to show symptoms of psychological torture. Melzer had visited Assange in May when he conducted an extensive review of his physical and psychological condition. In his statement on Friday, Melzer said, “Despite the medical urgency of my first appeal, and the seriousness of the alleged violations, the U.K. has not undertaken any measures of investigation, prevention, and redress required under international law.”
In addition to the concerns about Assange’s treatment at Belmarsh Prison outside of London, many have also raised concerns about the impartiality of the proceedings against him. Assange was jailed last April when the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he had been given political asylum, allowed the police to arrest him. He then received a 50-week sentence for having skipped jail in 2012. The Trump Administration has since then requested Assange’s extradition on 17 charges of espionage for which he could receive a 170-year prison sentence in the United States.
Joining me now to discuss the latest developments in the case of Julian Assange is John Pilger. He has been observing the Assange case very closely and was present at the October 21 court hearing. He is an award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker. His most recent film is The Coming War on China. Thanks for joining us again, John.
JOHN PILGER: Very welcome.
GREG WILPERT: Let’s start with Assange’s condition. As I said, you were there at the last hearing. What was your perception of his condition, and how he presented himself?
JOHN PILGER: Well, I was at the last hearing, and I saw Julian about a week before that, so I’ve seen him up close on a number of occasions recently. I think I can agree with Nils Melzer’s assessment. It’s very difficult to tell. His physical condition has changed dramatically. He’s lost about 15 kilos in weight. To see him in court struggling to say his name, and his date of birth, was really very moving. I’ve seen that when I visited Julian in Belmarsh Prison where he struggles at first, and then collects himself. I’m always impressed by the sheer resilience of the man, because as Melzer says, absolutely nothing has been done to change the conditions imposed on him by the prison regime. Nothing has been done by the British authorities.
This was almost underlined by the contemptuous way that this court hearing recently was conducted by this judge, by this magistrate. There was a sense among all of us who were there that the whole charade, and it seemed a charade, was preordained. You had sitting in front of us, on a long table, four Americans who were from the U.S. Embassy here in London, and one of the prosecution team was scurrying backwards and forwards to get instructions from them. The judge could see this, and she allowed it. It was just absolutely outrageous.
When Julian did try to speak, and to say that basically he was being denied the very tools with which to prepare his case, he was denied the right to call his American lawyer. He was denied the right to have any kind of word process or laptop. He was denied certain documents. As he said, “I’m even denied my own writings,” as he called it. That is, his own notes and manuscripts. This hasn’t changed at all, and of course the effect of that on his morale, to say the least, has been very significant, and that showed in the court.
GREG WILPERT: Yeah. I want to dig a little bit deeper on that issue about the fairness of this trial. Craig Murray who is a blogger, and was also at the last hearing, wrote about a number of issues, which you also mentioned. He specifically mentions district judge, Vanessa Baraitser, and one of the things that she did was completely dismiss Assange’s request for determination whether the extradition proceedings are even legal. That is, he cites according to U.K. law, “Extradition shall not be granted if the offense for which extradition is requested is a political offense.” Now, what do you think of this issue? Is Assange’s offense political, and what do you say about the judge’s reaction to that request?
JOHN PILGER: I know his lawyer Gareth Peirce very well, and she’s not a person to really be angered as such. But I saw her before and after the hearing, and she was quite angry about the fact as she said, “Here we have an extradition hearing, based on a treaty between the United States and Britain, and there is a section in that treaty that said,” as you’ve just mentioned, “No one can be extradited if the,” and I paraphrase, if the so-called offense is in any way political. Well under law, it’s not a matter of opinion. They are political. All but one of the charges concocted in Virginia are based on the 1917 Espionage Act, which was a political piece of legislation used to chase off the conscientious objectors during the first World War.
It’s political. There is no charge. There is no basis, no foundation, for allowing these extradition proceedings to go forward, and almost perversely the judge seemed to, if not acknowledged that in her contempt for the proceedings. Whenever Julian Assange spoke, she feigned a disinterest, a boredom, and whenever his lawyers spoke, the same thing. Whenever the prosecutor spoke, she was attentive. The theatrics of this hearing were quite remarkable. I’ve never seen anything like it. Then very hurriedly, when Julian Assange’s lawyer requested a delay in when the case actually starts from February, they said, “We’re not going to be ready in February,” and she dismissed that out of hand.
Not only that, she said that the extradition case would be held in a court that is in fact adjoining Belmarsh prison. It’s almost part of the prison. It’s a long way out of London. So you have, if not a secret trial, but a trial in which, or an extradition hearing in which very few seats are available to the public. It’s a very difficult place to get to. So every obstacle has been put in the way of Assange getting a fair hearing. And I can only repeat, this is a publisher and a journalist convicted of nothing, charged with nothing in Britain, whose only crime is journalism. That may sound like a slogan, but it’s true. They want him for exposing the kind of outrageous war crimes, Iraq, Afghanistan, that journalists are supposed to do.
GREG WILPERT: Right. Finally, I want to ask you also about the support that Assange seems to have been getting or not getting. It seems that the media organizations that benefited tremendously from Assange’s work, are hardly mentioning his case, let alone supporting him. Also, human rights groups such as Amnesty International have urged the U.K. not to extradite Julian, but they haven’t elevated the case. I just looked it up. They haven’t elevated it to the status of a campaign as they do for political prisoners normally. How do you explain this lack of concern among the media and human rights groups for Assange’s situation?
JOHN PILGER: Because so many human rights groups are deeply political, Amnesty International never made Chelsea Manning a prisoner of conscience. A really disgraceful thing. Chelsea Manning, who was effectively tortured in prison, and they haven’t, as you say, they haven’t elevated Julian’s case. Why? Well, they’re an extension. They’re an extension of an establishment that is now almost systematically coming down on any form of real dissent. In the last five, six years, the last gaps, the last bolt holes, the last spaces in the mainstream media for journalists, from average journalists for the likes Assange, not only Assange, for the likes of people like even myself and others, have closed.
The mainstream media, certainly in Britain, always held open those spaces. They’ve closed, and there is generally I would think a fear, right throughout the media, a fear about opposing the state on something like the Assange case. You see the way the whole obsession with Russia has consumed the media with so many nonsensical stories. The hostility, the animosity towards Julian. My own theory is that his work shamed so many journalists. He does what journalists ought to have done, and don’t do any more. He’s done the job of a journalist. That can only explain it. I mean when you take a newspaper like The Guardian, which published originally the WikiLeaks revelations about Iraq and Afghanistan, they turned on Julian Assange in the most vicious way.
They exploited him for one thing. A number of their journalists did extremely well with their books, and Hollywood scripts, and so on, but they turned on him personally. It was one of the most unedifying sights I think I’ve ever seen in journalism. The same thing happened in the New York Times. Again, I can only surmise the reason for that. It’s that he shames them. We have a desert of journalism at the moment. There are a few who still do their jobs; who still stand up against establishment power; who still are not frightened. But there’re so few now, and Julian Assange is totally fearless in that. He knew that he was going to run into a great deal of trouble with the state in Britain, the state in the United States–but he went ahead anyway. That’s a true journalist.
GREG WILPERT: Well, we’re going to have to leave it there for now, but of course we’re going to continue to follow his case as we have been since the beginning. I was speaking to John Pilger, award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker. Thanks again, John, for having joined us today.
JOHN PILGER: Very welcome, Greg.
GREG WILPERT: Thank you for joining The Real News Network.