UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer investigated the situation of Julian Assange, despite initial reservations. He says if Assange is extradited he faces a “politicized trial,” part of the unprecedented international effort to silence and imprison him
MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. It’s great to have you all with us.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture produced a scathing report stating that Julian Assange is undergoing “psychological torture,” and stating he “has never seen a group of Democratic states ganging up to deliberately isolate, demonize, abuse an individual for such a long time with so little regard for human dignity and the rule of law. And this on the heels of his turning down a request to investigate conditions which Julian Assange was kept in the Ecuadorian embassy, and stating in the Washington Post interview he was not a fan of Assange. So what does that really mean, that Assange is going through psychological torture, and that he’s in grave danger as a result of many nations seeking to have him silenced and see him imprisoned?
We are joined by the man who wrote that report, Nils Melzer, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, who holds the Human Rights Chair at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, a Professor of International Law at the University of Glasgow, author of numerous books on international law, and served for many years with the International Committee of the Red Cross as a legal advisor, delegate, and Deputy Head of Delegation to many zones of conflict and violence. And Nils Melzer, welcome. Good to have you with us here on The Real News.
NILS MELZER: Thank you, Marc.
MARC STEINER: So let me just begin with when the Washington Post said that you declined to weigh on conditions in the embassy because they had so many other things, 10 or 15 requests a day, but then decided to do this despite maybe you having questions about Assange, what that might mean. So why did you end up doing this? What made you look into this, then, in the end?
NILS MELZER: I realize that basically, I have been affected by the same kind of smear campaign that has been spread about Julian Assange in the media for many years, and I have kind of unconsciously absorbed that. I obviously didn’t yet know about him, I had never met him before, I didn’t know about the case that well. And so, in the beginning, I was reluctant to look at it. And when it was then prompted by colleagues to take a closer look, as I started scratching the surface, I saw how much fabrication and manipulation there really was in this case. And the deeper I got into the facts, the more discrepancies I saw. And then, this really prompted me to take this case very, very seriously. And I certainly think it deserved it.
MARC STEINER: So you went in with these medical experts two of them if I remember correctly from what I’ve read I’m curious. They talked a bit about maybe who they were and what they do and how you come to a conclusion that someone has been psychologically tortured. I mean they’re talking about that process and what you actually found. What does that mean.
NILS MELZER: Right. I was accompanied by two medical experts that usually accompany me on country missions when I go and investigate countries and/or prison systems and I interview dozens, if not sometimes hundreds, of detainees. And so, I have a forensic expert who is specialized on looking at the physical consequences of torture and I have a psychiatrist who’s specialized in the psychological part of it. Because torture can be either mental or it can be physical, and it is extremely important to have the medical knowledge to be able to distinguish traces of torture from traces of self-harm, or wounds that may have occurred during an accident or during their arrest or during a shootout. So you really need a forensic expert who can distinguish that. It becomes even more difficult for psychological symptoms. So there, you really need someone who specializes in identifying and documenting and examining the psychological traces of torture.
Now, when we look at torture, torture really is about inflicting pain and suffering on a person in order to instrumentalize that pain to achieve a purpose, like interrogating someone, obtaining information, intimidating them, punishing them. And so, in the end, any act of torture really has a psychological component. Because what you’re trying to do as a torturer is to affect the victim’s mind to make them cooperate, to intimidate them. So in the end, it’s a mental effect that the torturer is trying to achieve. Now, the question of whether you’re looking at physical torture or psychological torture is only what kind of means are you using to try to achieve that effect? Are you trying to inflict physical pain in order to coerce the person, or are you trying to inflict mental suffering, fear, anxiety, isolation, confusion, disorientation, hopelessness, depression, shame, and humiliation, or a combination of all of those? Because that can be extremely effective in breaking a person’s mind and emotions. So that’s that type of symptoms we’re looking for.
And now, these medical experts, they follow a so-called Istanbul protocol, which is a universally recognized manual for medical experts to identify symptoms of torture and ill treatment. And we ran these tests for three hours on Mr. Assange during my visit; physical tests and psychological tests. And he showed all the symptoms of a person who has been exposed to prolonged psychological torture.
MARC STEINER: And what would those symptoms be? I mean, could you give an example of what that means, for our viewers?
NILS MELZER: Severe post-traumatic stress disorder, which is kind of a conglomerate of symptoms, then chronic anxiety, permanent severe stress and agitation. So you’re looking at a person who has not relaxed and slept a quiet night for several months, if not years. So this person is mentally extremely destabilized, will have difficulties focusing. And sometimes we’re perhaps misled to think that psychological torture is somehow soft torture. It isn’t. It can actually have more grave consequences because it attacks the personality of the person, and through isolation and systematic breakdown, can basically lead to a permanent change of personality, which then can also affect the cardiovascular system. It can affect the nervous system, and in extreme cases lead even to brain damage.
MARC STEINER: I mean, maybe you can’t talk about this, maybe you can, because there’s maybe too much speculation. But when you mention that you’ve never seen a group of Democratic nations come together to literally prosecute somebody like they’re doing with Assange, A) I’m curious what that means, and B) more specifically about that in the context of what you just described as psychological torture, and why they would be doing it, and at whose behest, which probably is too much speculation. I’m just curious how these things fit together.
NILS MELZER: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I think it’s a fair question. People might ask, well how on earth can it be torture if someone lives with a cat and a skateboard in an embassy, right? So I think what we have to realize is if you confine a person to a room for six or seven years, you can give him can and skateboards all you want. If you restrict his communication, he has no friendly contacts anymore, so he’s completely isolated, he’s getting harassed on a daily basis by security guards, he’s on a 24 hour video surveillance so he has no privacy whatsoever, and whatever he does maybe ending up on the Internet the next day, that leads to a constant kind of paranoia almost of a sensation of being basically exposed to danger and harassment and hostility all the time. That can be extremely destructive for the human mind. We can’t imagine that. It’s a bit like if you’re standing somewhere for five minutes, you could not imagine that if someone makes you stand for 50 hours, this could be torture. So if you stick someone in a room for five hours, that’s fine, but for five years it can actually become torturous.
Now, in the context–and that’s important–where the person is being persecuted by judicial procedures that really don’t have a lot of factual basis. And that is also something–we have this constant dissemination of a narrative of this shady hacker, sexual offender, selfish narcissist. But when you go and look actually at the facts that are being alleged against him, there is very little of this left. And the Swedish procedures are based on extremely weak evidence, if nonexistent evidence, and have been conducted in a way that deliberately prevented Julian Assange from basically defending himself and clarifying the situation–although he always tried to do that–and keeping him in a situation where in order to defend himself against sexual allegations, he would have to expose himself to extradition to the United States. And that is the big fear that he’s always had, and I think credibly so. Because I believe that if he were to be extradited to the U.S., he would be running a great risk of serious violations of human rights.
MARC STEINER: So we’re running out of time, but a couple things here. And I want to come back to something you just said. But let me move to this, when you talked about the danger you see in a political show trial taking place in the United States, where he could be facing 170-180 years at ten years per count that he’s been accused of. So talk in more detail about what you mean by a politicized show trial that would take place if he was extradited to the United States. Why did you say that?
NILS MELZER: Right. It’s not a statement I come to lightly. I think it’s important to see this whole case is not about justice, it’s about politics. If you look at what Julian Assange has been accused to have done by the U.S., these 18 counts, 17 of them are under the Espionage Act, although Julian Assange is not an American citizen. He has no duty of allegiance to the United States, he didn’t commit any of these acts in the United States. But obviously he did disclose a lot of compromising information about the United States, as many investigative journalists have done before him and also after him. It’s just that the amount of information that he has disclosed has been enormous. And that, obviously, is being perceived as a massive threat to national security if other people were to imitate that in the future. But let me just prove the point. If this were about justice, then perhaps he would be prosecuted. But then also, the crimes that he has exposed, which are much more serious–we’re talking about war crimes, the collateral murder video and so on–then those would be prosecuted as well.
But when you have a judicial system that prosecutes whistleblowers, or let alone journalists, that have exposed serious crimes, but they don’t prosecute the exposed crimes which are much more serious, then you clearly don’t have equality before the law. You’re not having a judicial system there that enforces the law, but you have a selective enforcement. And that’s where a prosecution becomes persecution. There is also the whole point of the public perception of Julian Assange in the United States as the Public Enemy. There’s plenty of things he’s being blamed for, from putting people in danger, sources of information, to having influenced the elections in the U.S. And there’s plenty of allegations like this that have very little basis as being a crime. But there’s this public perception against, this prejudice against him that would make it very, very difficult for him to receive a fair and impartial trial.
MARC STEINER: So I’m very curious. If, in fact, it’s right that these different nations are colluding to come after Assange–and we don’t have all the facts there and it’s some sense of speculation, but also there’s some substance to it as well. But I mean, the outcome of this. A huge extradition trial has to take place in Britain, there’ll be a lot of political pressure from the United States, under the Trump administration especially, to come and get Assange. So where does an organization like yours take it from here? What do you do now? What’s your role now, if any?
NILS MELZER: Well, I’m mandated to report back to the states and to the Human Rights Council and the United Nations General Assembly as to the observations I make with regard to the compliance of states with regard to the provision of torture. So here I am convinced that when I look at how all these judicial proceedings have been conducted, he has not had a fair hearing in any of the four states so far. It starts with the secret hearings in the U.S. with the grand jury, which obviously is based on also secret evidence. We have the Swedish proceedings that have been manipulated, as I spoke to before, in a way so he could not defend himself for many, many years, spreading a narrative of a suspected rapist without him basically being able to correct that, and destroying his reputation. You’ve had the British court hearings that were also conducted by judges that showed to be clearly biased.
One example, he was arrested on the 11th of April, pulled out of the embassy after more than six years there, and within a couple of hours he was pulled in front of the judge. He did not get more than 15 minutes to prepare his defense with the defense counsel. And the defense counsel objected to the hearings, saying that one of the involved judgment had a conflict of interest, and submitted evidence for that to the presiding judge. And the presiding judge basically brushed that away and accused Assange of being a narcissist, although Assange hadn’t said anything in that hearing except for “I plead not guilty.” So the judge clearly had come into that hearing with a bias already. And so, you can see all of these steps.
Ecuador has taken away his asylum status and his citizenship without any due process at all. It was just the president deciding one morning, “That’s what I’m going to do today,” and in the afternoon, he was already in British jurisdiction. In a normal rule of law state, you would have a due process proceeding with an appeal to a court. Depriving someone of asylum status can be a very serious risk to human rights. So what we see that in all these four jurisdictions, Julian Assange has never benefited from due process. And that’s why I fear that if he’s sent to the U.S., to the infamous espionage court where no national security defendant so far–to my information–has ever been the acquitted, that it would be extremely difficult for him to receive a fair trial.
MARC STEINER: So in essence, what we’re watching here is a man who exposed what could be war crimes taking place on the part of United States, could be held up as an example internationally to all citizen journalists wherever they are, saying if you do this, if you take this into your hands and expose anything like this, you too can go to trial and be silenced. That’s what we’re facing in here many ways.
NILS MELZER: Exactly, exactly. And take another example of Myanmar, that case of Myanmar where two Reuters journalists have been imprisoned for years because they exposed the massacre of civilians. They have been pardoned in the meantime. But then the soldiers, they were also convicted and sentenced to I think 10 years or something and then also pardoned, but at least they were convicted at some point. I’m not saying it’s correct to pardon them, but at least they were convicted.
In the U.S., I don’t think anyone has ever been convicted for the collateral murder incidents or for the torture that happens that was proven by the Senate Committee Report. And that is an obligation under international law that the U.S. would have, to actually prosecute these crimes that have been exposed. And if they do that, well then they may have an arguable case if a whistleblower violated the national law, they can also prosecute them. But to prosecute the whistleblower like Chelsea Manning and to prosecute the journalist that exposed the crimes, but not to prosecute the actual war crime, seems to be extremely disproportionate and certainly not reflective of a system under the rule of law.
MARC STEINER: Well, Nils Melzer, I deeply appreciate you taking the time with us today. I know you’re very busy, you have a lot going on, I appreciate the work you’ve been doing for all of us out there. Thank you so much for joining us.
NILS MELZER: Thank you.
MARC STEINER: And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Take care.