We have reached a pivotal moment in history, when a journalist is prosecuted for speaking the truth, and nobody cares…
Julian Assange’s extradition hearing came to an end on Thursday; a trial which, according to his supporters bears all the hallmarks of a ‘show trial’ straight from the pages of a Kafka novel. The former Wikileaks editor, has already served around 13 years in arbitrary detention, despite not having been charged with any crime. If there was ever any confirmation of the helplessness of the individual in relation to the state, this was it. And if there was ever any demonstration needed that the West is moving away from democracy towards authoritarianism, this was it.
Detail on the court proceedings – which are now adjourned till May – has not, of course, come from the mainstream media, but from the few journalists and commentators who were allowed into the public gallery. By far the best daily summary of proceedings has come from former UK ambassador turned human rights activist Craig Murray, which can be read on his blog. As Murray has related, Assange has been subjected to treatment on a par with that of a violent terrorist, not a publisher wanted for unveiling state secrets. Confined to a glass box, from which he has not been able to hear a word of what is said in the court, Assange stated he was as much a participant of the proceedings as a ‘spectator at Wimbledon’.
Strip searched 11 times and repeatedly handcuffed, such was the treatment Assange received from prison officers in the UK’s highest security prison on the first day of the trial. His lawyer’s request that he should be seated beside the legal team was refused by Judge Baraitser as she claimed the Wikileaks founder presented a danger to the public. Edward Fitzgerald, Assange’s lawyer, argued that on the contrary, he was a “gentle man of an intellectual nature” and not a violent terrorist. This did little to sway Baraitser, who didn’t budge. As Craig Murray has aptly put it: “Baraitser’s intention is to humiliate Assange, and to instill in the rest of us horror at the vast crushing power of the state. The inexorable strength of the sentencing wing of the nightmarish Belmarsh Prison must be maintained. If you are here, you are guilty.”
It may sound pessimistic, but the reality is that the fate of Julian Assange has long been sealed. He has already been found guilty by the British and US establishment and any hope that he may be given a fair and objective trial is futile. For as journalists Matt Kennard and Mark Curtis have exposed, behind Judge Baraitser is the weight of the UK defence and security service establishment, in the form of Chief Magistrate, Lady Arbuthnot, a woman not impartial to the Wikileaks founder’s fate. Kennard and Curtis point out that Arbuthnot took charge over Assange’s case from 2017 to 2019, during which time she delivered two controversial rulings. She rejected the UN support for Assange, and refused to recognise the political asylum granted to him by Ecuador. Although she no longer personally presides over the Assange extradition proceedings, Arbuthnot retains the position of guiding and supporting the junior judges in her jurisdiction, i.e. Judge Baraitser. And despite having not declared any conflict of interest in the case, Kennard and Curtis have shown otherwise.
It has been revealed that the Arbuthnot family has a deep-seated interest in ensuring Assange is extradited to the US. According to Kennard and Curtis, Lady Arbuthnot and her husband had previously received gifts and hospitality from a military and cybersecurity company exposed by Wikileaks. Her husband also plays an important role in the British military and intelligence establishment. Even their son has been linked to an anti-data leak company founded by the UK security service and staffed by US intelligence officials from agencies involved in pursuing Julian Assange.
Assange’s lawyers previously complained about Lady Arbuthnot’s potential bias in the case, hence the fact why Baraitser replaced her at subsequent hearings, to which the judiciary responded: “There has been no bias demonstrated by the chief magistrate. The chief magistrate, however, is aware of the judicial conduct guidance that advises on avoiding the perception of bias and is not hearing the case”. But to think that is where it ends would be mistaken. Judge Baraitser, according to Kennard and Curtis, was likely chosen with Arbuthnot’s consent, and Arbuthnot continues to oversee the legal proceedings.
Craig Murray provides us with a scathing portrait of Judge Baraitser, whom he asserts is trying to ‘humiliate’ Assange as much as possible. He describes her desire to isolate Assange from the court proceedings and interrupt his Defence lawyer as much as possible with distracting questions and remarks. As for the prosecution, Assange’s lawyer, Edward Fitzgerald, argued that its framing of the case amounted to a misrepresentation of the facts and ‘abuse of process’. Stating that the motivation for Assange’s extradition was ‘political’, he suggested that the current extradition treaty between the UK and US could not be applied as it did not cover political extraditions. The prosecution lawyer, Lewis, on the other hand refused to accept that Assange could be classed as a political refugee as he maintained he had not committed any political offence (quite an extraordinary assertion as Wikileaks’ operations could not have had more of a political impact). Judge Baraitser also chimed in to say that the UK/US extradition treaty, on which the extradition was based, was not incorporated into English law (!). To which Fitzgerald quite rightly noted ‘On the face of it, it is a very bizarre argument that a treaty which gives rise to the extradition, on which the extradition is founded, can be disregarded in its provisions. It is on the face of it absurd.’
‘Absurd’. Perhaps the most important word of all here. For it could be argued that absurdity goes to the very heart of this trial. The British authorities are simply going through the motions, putting on a performance of Shakesperian quality, to give the impression that due process is being carried out. In fact, the verdict has long been decided, as has Assange’s fate. This is a historic moment, a pivotal one. We have been gradually moving away from democracy and liberal values for some time now, with the media being threatened by both the Johnson and Trump administrations, but this is a moment not only journalists, but every one of us should be concerned about. It brings to mind the poem by German Lutheran pastor 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 unionist.
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.
Worth thinking about.