I have monitored many clear show trials for Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in recent years, most recently especially in Turkey, a country that is ranked 154 out of 180 on the World Press Freedom index and which has organised a veritable witch hunt against all independent journalists in recent years. But even with these arbitrary trials in Turkey it was a common practice that — as international NGO process observers — RSF got guaranteed access from the Turkish judicial authorities (even under the extraordinary circumstances of Covid-19).
That is not the case, however, with the extradition procedure against the Wikileaks founder and publisher, Julian Assange. This is happening in Great Britain, which ranks 35th on the RSF’s World Press Freedom index.
RSF is the only NGO that has continuously monitored the extradition hearing in London over the past four weeks. Negotiations took place to decide whether Julian Assange should be extradited from the UK to the USA, where he faces up to 175 years imprisonment. I was in court for several days at the beginning and at the end, and my London-based colleague was in court for almost all the other days.
The British authorities have tried to make observation as difficult as possible, just like they did at the first hearing in February. Even though we have been trying to secure guaranteed access since February, we were explicitly denied it by British judicial authorities. A video transmission link once granted was withdrawn from us and other NGOs on the first day. Each morning, we had to try to secure one of only six seats for observers, two of which were kept unoccupied until noon every day for “VIPs”, who never showed up in the end.
Britain is thus blatantly violating its human rights and constitutional obligations to ensure public observation of proceedings. The oral hearing of evidence is over after four weeks. The defense now has until October 30 to submit its final written plea. The prosecution, in turn, has until November 13 to respond with its final plea. However, all this is no longer done orally, but only in writing – another undermining and blatant violation of the constitutional principle of open and transparent proceedings.
Over four weeks, dozens of witnesses took the stand to be questioned. The testimony of the independent medical expert and neuropsychiatrist Michael Kopelman was as clear as it was disturbing. Professor Kopelman reported on Julian Assange’s longstanding depression, his fears, his suicidal thoughts, and his sleep and post-traumatic stress disorders. According to Professor Kopelman, Assange’s life is extremely endangered. If he were extradited to the USA, he would certainly find a way to kill himself. from the perspective of RSF, the question of whether Julian Assange will be extradited is therefore also a question of life or death.
Professor Kopelman’s statement has once again made it clear that Julian Assange’s release is necessary on humanitarian grounds. RSF therefore demands once again that Julian Assange be released immediately and that all charges against be dropped. Our petition asking the British government to do so is still open.
At the trial, especially shocking was the statement of an anonymous witness and ex-employee of the Spanish company, UC Global. During Julian Assange’s asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy, UC Global systematically spied on him, as the newspaper El País revealed a year ago. In his written statement for the record, the ex-UC Global employee provided detailed testimony about bugging fire extinguishers, conducting real-time video surveillance and targeted surveillance of Assange’s lawyers, spying on all visitors (including copying data from tablet computers and cell phones which were handed in when entering the embassy), and even collecting baby diapers to gather DNA traces of his children who were born during asylum. The witness also reported that UC Global discussed the possibility of poisoning Assange with US agents .
Although the extradition hearing against Julian Assange is not a show trial — partly because there are other British legal instances before which a decision must stand up to scrutiny — it is essentially a political process. The legal debate revolves around the question of whether, as the US argues, Assange committed crimes, or whether the information on US war crimes published by him and Wikileaks (in conjunction with media outlets such as Der Spiegel, New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde and El País) was relevant to the public — as Reporters Without Borders sees it. Ultimately, the court will hear the question of what information journalists will be able to publish in the future without having to fear prosecution in the USA. Even now, US prosecution on the basis of the US Espionage Act is an example of political persecution. An extradition to the USA would be a dangerous precedent for the freedom of the press. Reporters without borders stands therefore at the side of Julian Assange and of Wikileaks.
Christian Mihr is the Berlin-based executive director of RSF Germany