'Major Loophole' Means US Unlikely to Honor Promise to Treat Assange Humanely, Journalist Says
23:50 GMT 29.10.2021 (Updated: 00:02 GMT 30.10.2021)
As the US government's efforts to extradite Wikileaks founder and editor Julian Assange resumed this week, Shadowproof managing editor Kevin Gosztola noted how the apparent CIA plot to assassinate Assange impacts the case, the “major loophole” in US assurances that Assange will receive adequate mental healthcare in an American prison.
With the hearing that press freedom advocates have hailed as the ‘trial of the century' once again underway in London, journalists, human rights observers, and activists alike tuned in this week to hear arguments over whether the US government’s claim that Julian Assange will receive decent treatment in US prison will convince a British court to hand over the man described by his attorneys as “the CIA’s most prominent critic.”
If convicted, Assange faces a maximum sentence of 175 years. The Justice Department alleges the Australian citizen violated the US Espionage Act of 1917 by conspiring to obtain and publish documents exposing US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He’s been held in Britain’s high-security Belmarsh prison since 2019, under conditions widely condemned by human rights organizations and which the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer has characterized as “a concerted effort to eventually break his will,
” after spending the previous seven years receiving political asylum in Ecuador’s embassy in the UK before the right-wing government of Lenín Moreno delivered him to British authorities.
28 October 2021, 17:06 GMT
All that could change soon, as the US looks to downplay worries that Assange’s mental health could reach a breaking point if he ends up in US prison and convince Vanessa Baraitser, the judge overseeing the case, to reverse her January finding
that Assange’s “extradition would be oppressive by reason of mental harm.”
This week, US lawyers insisted they had issued “binding” assurances that Assange would not be subjected to harsh Special Administrative Measures, would receive adequate mental healthcare, and would be eligible for transfer to an Australian prison if convicted in the US. But Assange’s lawyers said such “qualified and conditional” promises are “meaningless.”
“All are caveated, vague, or simply ineffective. None offer any concession or assurance against the application of existing US practice,” said Assange lawyer Edward Fitzgerald. That view has been echoed by Amnesty International legal adviser Simon Crowther, who described such diplomatic assurances as “inherently dangerous,” because “they're based on diplomatic relations between states, [and] they're not legally binding under international law," he told ABC News Australia this week.
Once bitten, twice shy
Shadowproof managing editor Kevin Gosztola also has serious concerns about the credibility of the US government’s commitments. He’s closely followed the US government’s attempts to imprison Assange for years, and he points to previous unfulfilled Bureau of Prison promises as evidence there’s a “major loophole in this assurance.”
“The Bureau of Prisons made a big deal about the need for prisoners to have access to mental health treatment a few years ago. And the Marshall Project… found that they did put out this policy but what they didn’t do is invest in having staff that could provide care to prisoners. What that resulted in is the doctors were making determinations that prisoners did not need care.”
Gosztola says the US promise not to subject Assange to Special Administrative Measures is similarly hollow because “the CIA gets to advise the Attorney General on making that decision.”
“They could say they fear he will commit a breach of national security, maybe orchestrate a publication of more of their information. Maybe there’s materials from the Vault 7 materials that haven’t been published. They could say ‘we wanna stop that, so let’s put him under Special Administrative Measures and keep him in highly-restrictive conditions so that we can control him.’”
In September, Yahoo News cited numerous CIA sources
who say the agency kept Assange under strict surveillance and plotted to kidnap or even assassinate him, seemingly confirming last year’s bombshell report by The Grayzone
detailing how the CIA utilized Spanish surveillance firm UC Global in various plots to kill or kidnap the Wikileaks publisher and spy on his associates.
Assange’s lawyers say the story shows Assange has “grounds for fearing what will be done to him” should he be extradited—and again Gosztola concurs, describing the revelation as “the most important aspect of all of this when it comes to the CIA and the diplomatic assurances and what would likely happen to Assange if he was brought to the US.”
He says the extensive plots against Assange show that the CIA is not just “interested” in Assange. “It’s much more nefarious than that. They’re sketching out plans to kidnap, poison. They’re doing these things like trying to steal wikileaks’ staff or associates’ electronic devices.”
Such efforts, he says, go beyond the typical purview of a security agency and “into the realm of things that we are very familiar with if you know your history of the security state going back to the ‘60s when they were targeting Latin American leaders and people in Africa for assassination… it has all the hallmarks of that history when you’re talking about what they did to Assange.”
Corporate media snoozes as press freedom under attack
With the fate of press freedom hanging in the balance, and the revelations about the extent of the CIA’s harassment of Assange still fresh in the public memory, prominent human rights organizations are speaking out against Assange’s extradition.
On October 18th, a coalition of mainstream groups including the ACLU, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Reporters Without Borders cautioned that “the proceedings against Mr. Assange jeopardize journalism that is crucial to democracy,” and urged the US Department of Justice to drop the charges, citing “a precedent created by prosecuting Assange [that] could be used against publishers and journalists alike, chilling their work and undermining freedom of the press.”
29 October 2021, 11:07 GMT
But despite this dire warning, mainstream news outlets have been hesitant to voice support for Assange, often seeking to distance themselves from Wikileaks’ controversial disclosures. Recent Nobel prize winner Maria Ressa may have best expressed this attitude when she told Time Magazine in 2019 that the “wholesale dumping of Wikileaks actually isn’t journalism,” suggesting that Assange should have withheld documents in the interest of “national security.”
For Gosztola, nothing could be further from the truth. “If you’ve been reading the Facebook papers in the past week, the Pandora papers, the Panama papers, these are all projects that used the model fundamentally pioneered by Wikileaks, of taking documents and engaging in what they called at the time, “scientific journalism”--the belief that having primary source materials makes it possible for people to see essentially the work that journalists are doing and to have greater benefit.”
In fairness, recent reports about CIA plots and the agency’s attempts to influence Assange’s extradition case have reignited mainstream interest, Gosztola says.
“Now today, you have journalists in the establishment media who I think recognize that what was in the Yahoo News report was of a lot of significance,” he acknowledges, noting that “we saw more journalists tune into the appeal hearing than even the extradition hearing in September 2020.” But at the end of the day, “they still do not feel willing to classify Julian Assange as a journalist.”
“And so long as they want to believe that Julian Assange is not like them, they are playing into the CIA’s hands. They are furthering the CIA’s revenge–because that’s what this case is. Every moment that this political persecution continues against Assange… the US government is advancing the CIA’s commitment to revenge against someone who exposed their documents, exposed them to scrutiny that they did not want to face as an institution… He is in Belmarsh security prison because he challenged the CIA.”
Though the two-day appeal by US lawyers against the extradition denial has concluded, for Assange, there’s still no end in sight.
“We don’t know when the high court of justice is going to rule; it could be a couple months or maybe even longer before we have any decision on the appeal,” Gosztola explains. And given that the losing side is likely to appeal the result to the Supreme Court, he says “it's very possible that Assange continues to be in Belmarsh high-security prison for another three or four years without any approval of the extradition.”
And with the question of whether Assange will be extradited now hinging almost exclusively on his mental health, Gosztola says the Wikileaks founder finds himself in a “somewhat sadistic” situation.
“It's almost as if in order to succeed in his saving his life–in order to stop him from going to the US–his legal team has to convince [the court] that he's not the person that inspired millions of people around the world to believe that you could challenge US empire and all of the war crimes and abuses that they engage in globally."