The man standing in front of the Central Criminal Court in London on Monday morning has brought his scythe with him. He wears a black cloak with a hood and hides his face behind a veil. He holds the plastic scythe in his left hand. What he symbolically bears to his grave here is written on the sign he has with him: “Rest in peace, British justice”. And below: “When Julian is extradited”.
Julian – that’s what everyone who has gathered outside the Old Bailey Court in London calls him. A good 30 women and men sing and clap for their hero. Julian Assange, arguably the most influential revelator in the world, is fighting for nothing less than his life – that’s how his followers see it. The US is demanding the extradition of the Wikileaks founder. If the British court agrees, he faces 18 charges and up to 175 years in prison.
In London, the United States’ campaign against whistleblowers and their helpers is reaching its peak. A campaign in which the limits of freedom of the press are being re-explored. One of the things that is negotiating here is what journalists can publish in the future – without having to fear being charged in the United States.
According to a psychiatrist, Assange has hallucinations and thoughts of suicide
The list of US allegations has become even longer with the start of the hearing. Assange’s defense attorneys were outraged that they had too little time to respond. In essence, however, there are two charges: Assange is said to have received four databases from US soldier Chelsea Manning a decade ago in order to publish them. 90,000 reports from the war in Afghanistan. 400,000 from the Iraq war. 250,000 embassy dispatches. 800 reports of inmates in Guantanamo.
Assange is said to have helped Manning in a chat in vain to crack a password so that she could penetrate the internal systems of the US military even further. For the US this is espionage. Assange’s lawyers, however, argue that the publication of the documents was covered by freedom of the press – they contained evidence of crimes committed by the American state, including the kidnapping of the German Khaled al-Masri by the CIA. His statement about his ordeal was also read out in London.
In addition, the US argues that Assange published documents unredacted without obscuring potentially endangered US military aides. For example, he exposed Afghans to allegations of treason and turned them into targets. The defense argues that Wikileaks initially only published the blackened documents. So this week will be heard from journalists like New Zealander Nicky Hager, whom Assange gave access to the material. Hager testified how important it was to Assange to make people at risk unrecognizable. The unedited documents initially only came into circulation through indiscretion by British journalists. They had published the password to the unredacted dispatches from the US State Department in a book.
Two other issues shaped the process this week: Assange’s health and the transparency of the process. Christian Mihr, who observed the hearing for the organization Reporters Without Borders on site, says: “Assange makes a weak impression, psychologically very upset. He is in a glass case. It is now open at the top and not locked.” According to the psychiatrist Michael Kopelman, Assange is acutely suicidal. There is a “high risk” that the 49-year-old will want to take his own life, he said in court on Tuesday. He had visited Assange in custody about 20 times. The Wikileaks founder has hallucinations. On Wednesday, the prosecution argued with another psychiatrist who had also examined Assange to determine whether or not he was autistic.
Christian Mihr says he’s having trouble following the procedure. There are too few places for the press and NGOs. He had to squeeze into a podium from which he could only look at the screens that were available for the few journalists in an adjoining room. In addition, every morning two of the rare seats are reserved for mysterious “VIPs” who never showed up.
Even at show trials in Turkey, access to the process is easier
However, whoever came on the first day of the proceedings was an employee of the German embassy in London. The Foreign Office observed the preliminary hearings in January. This is shown by internal notes from the embassy, which the FragdenStaat portal recently published. Even the diplomat noticed how difficult it was to monitor the process. Mihr says: “It is not a show trial, but a political process. There are blatant violations of Britain’s rule of law and human rights obligations. However, even during show trials in Turkey, access to the process was easier.”
Whether the charge is “political” or whether Assange committed more ordinary crimes is an important legal question. Britain is not allowed to extradite political prisoners. However, a judgment against extradition would also be a diplomatic affront by Great Britain to its ally USA. The court in London has to decide whether the crimes can lead to criminal proceedings in the UK.
If the court approves Assange’s expulsion, he has the right to appeal. He could go to the European Court of Human Rights. Some of his supporters see this plan with mixed feelings, because there is a strong parliamentary group in the British government that advocates that after Brexit, Britain should no longer allow itself to be dictated by the Strasbourg court.