Category Archives: Nils Melzer

Medical Opinion, Torture and Julian Assange

On November 27 this year, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer, delivered an address to the German Bundestag outlining his approach to understanding the mental health of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. These comprised two parts, the initial stage covering his diplomatic asylum in the Ecuadorean embassy, the second dealing with his formal detention in the United Kingdom at the hands of the UK legal and judicial system. The conclusion was a recapitulation of previous findings: that Assange has been subjected to a prolonged, state-sponsored effort in torture, nothing less than a targeting of his being.

Melzer’s address is an expansive portrait of incremental inter-state torment that led to Assange’s confinement “in a highly controlled environment within the Ecuadorean embassy for more than six years.” There was the eventually justified fear that he would be sought by the United States in extradition proceedings. The Swedish authorities threw in their muddled lot between 2010 and 2019, attempting to nab Assange for rape claims despite “not being able to produce enough evidence for an indictment, and which now, after almost a decade, has been silently closed for the third time based on precisely that recognition.”

Then came the British contribution, consisting of encouragement to the Swedes by the Crown Prosecution Service that the investigation should not be closed, inspiring them not to get “cold feet”. (The cold feet eventually came.) The Ecuadorean contribution completed the four-piece set, with the coming to power of a pro-Washington Lenín Moreno. Embassy personnel in London were encouraged to make conditions that less pleasant; surveillance operations were conducted on Assange’s guests and meetings.

Melzer, along with a medical team, attended to Assange on May 9, 2019 in Belmarsh, finding a man with “all the symptoms that are typical of persons having been exposed to psychological torture for a prolonged period of time.” There was little doubt, in Melzer’s mind, that symptoms “already measurable physically, neurologically and cognitively”, had been shown.

These calls went unheeded. Melzer, in early November, accused the UK authorities of showing “outright contempt for Mr Assange’s rights and integrity.” Despite warnings issued by the rapporteur, “the UK has not undertaken any measures of investigation, prevention and redress required under international law.” Melzer’s prognosis was bleak. “Unless the UK urgently changes course and alleviates his inhumane situation, Mr Assange’s continued exposure to arbitrariness and abuse may soon end up costing his life.”

This point has been restated by Dr. Stephen Frost, a chief figure of the dedicated outfit calling itself Doctors for Assange. “We repeat that it is impossible to assess adequately let alone treat Mr Assange in Belmarsh prison and that he must as a matter of urgency be moved to a university teaching hospital. When will the UK government listen to us?”

The medical degrading of Assange has assumed ever greater importance, suggesting unwavering state complicity. On November 22, over 65 notable medical doctors sent the UK Home Secretary a note based on Melzer’s November 1 findings and Assange’s state at the October 21 case management hearing at Westminster Magistrates Court. “It is our opinion that Mr Assange requires urgent expert medical assessment of both his physical and psychological state of health. Any medical treatment indicated should be administered in a properly equipped and expertly staffed university teaching hospital (tertiary care).”

In a second open letter to the UK Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice dated December 4, the Doctors for Assange collective warned that the UK’s “refusal to take the required measures to protect Mr Assange’s rights, health and dignity appears [to] be reckless at best and deliberate at worst and, in both cases, unlawfully and unnecessarily exposes Mr Assange to potentially irreversible risks.”

The same grounds were reiterated in a December 16 letter to Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, with a curt reminder that she had “an undeniable legal obligation to protect your citizen against the abuse of his fundamental rights, stemming from US efforts to extradite Mr Assange for journalism and publishing that exposed US war crimes.” In the event that Payne took no action on the matter, “people would want to know what you […] did to prevent his death.”

In the addendum to the open letter, further to reiterating the precarious state of Assange’s health and medical status as a torture victim, the doctors elaborate on the circular cruelty facing the publisher. An individual deemed “a victim of psychological torture cannot be adequately medically treated while continuing to be held under the very conditions constituting psychological torture, as is currently the case for Julian Assange.” Appropriate medical treatment was hardly possible through a prison hospital ward.

A lesson in understanding mental torture is also proffered. “Contrary to popular misconception, the injuries caused by psychological torture are real and extremely serious. The term psychological torture is not a synonym for mere hardship, suffering or distress.”

At Assange’s case management hearing on December 19, restrictions on medical opinion were again implemented; psychiatrist Marco Chiesa and psychologist David Morgan were prevented from attending. Both had been signatories to the spray of open letters. According to Morgan, he had hoped to “provide some observations about Julian Assange’s health, psychologically, and with my colleagues, physically.” Instead, it transpired that access was denied, according to psychologist Lissa Johnson, “despite members of the public offering to give up seats for them.”

Cold-shouldering expert opinion can be counted as one of the weapons of the state in punishing whistleblowers and publishers. The State has always made it a bureaucratic imperative to sift the undesirable evidence from the apologetic message. Accepting Assange’s condition would be tantamount to admission on the part of UK authorities, urged on by the United States, that intolerable, potentially martyring treatment, has been meted out to a publisher.

Question for Kirbymoorside UK Hustings Meeting: Would you stand up for Julian Assange?

To those candidates who are putting themselves forward as MPs to become a voice within the UK Parliament — would you stand up for Julian Assange and for those who. in speaking truth, have the audacity to challenge the dialogue of power?

I am disappointed that my question relating to the arbitrary detention of Julian Assange was not presented at the Hustings meeting at Kirbymoorside. I consider it to be a question of such vital importance for all those who share a common belief in justice, truth and commitment to democracy and freedom of speech, so I have chosen to re-present a significantly fuller version of the question by using an open letter form.

The treatment of Julian Assange, arguably one of the world’s most brilliant, courageous and outspoken personalities, raises serious concerns in so many ways that we urgently need an open discussion on it. These areas include: unlawful arbitrary detention, the law on asylum and extradition, democracy, sovereignty, torture, free speech, and state violence.

The initial investigation against Julian Assange, which originated in Sweden, never reached the stage of prosecution and all investigations have since been withdrawn. Julian Assange has also served time in prison for skipping bail by seeking asylum within the Ecuadorian Embassy because of the well-founded fear that he would be extradited to the United States. In such circumstances skipping bail and seeking asylum was a rational and fully justified decision. Nevertheless, our judicial system chose to punish him by giving him a prison sentence in Belmarsh — a prison reserved for Britain’s most dangerous and violent offenders.

That sentence has now been served which brings into question why Julian Assange continues to be detained. Within the UK extradition of political prisoners is prohibited. Therefore, questions arise as to the legality of this extradition order and what the justification is for his continued detention, especially within a top security prison. Julian Assange is charged with espionage, which by any definition, comes under the umbrella of political activity. Along with Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange is charged with publishing information regarding US war crimes in Iraq. The UK is a sovereign kingdom and signatory to international human rights laws, over and above its relation with the US. For UK laws to be subverted at the behest of a foreign government raises a further serious question. Just who is being represented here: the citizenry or some other power?

In 2016 a UN Working Party on arbitrary detention determined that the detention of Julian Assange was unlawful. How this same Working Party in 2019 would view his forcible extraction from the Embassy and his subsequent detention at Belmarsh Prison can only be speculated upon.

Nils Melzer, UN Rapporteur on torture, has stated that the current treatment of Julian Assange — of being under surveillance and placed in solidarity confinement, both during the latter years within the Ecuadorian Embassy and within Belmarsh Prison — amounts to psychological torture.

Julian Assange is a researcher and publisher. His crime has been to publish truthful information relating to serious war crimes committed against civilians, including journalists and children, by US forces within Iraq. Clearly this revelation is embarrassing for the US — which along with the allied military forces invaded Iraq on a contrived pretext — at the time deemed illegal by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. The devastation of this war has been disastrous for civilians throughout much of the Middle East as this toxic war mentality kiled hundreds of thousands, created a huge refugee population, and contributed to terrorism that has expanded into Europe and beyond. Definitively, telling, writing, and publishing the facts was a moral obligation. There is a glaring irony here given that within the UK “it is a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment ‘not’ to reveal information relating to a serious crime if one becomes aware of it.”1

The state has normalised war just as it has normalised the extremes of wealth and power. The oligarchy has relegated a large segment of the population to a marginal economic existence. The so-called democracy has been subverted to the whims of transnational corporations, banks too big to fail, the military industrial complex, the pharmaceutical medical monopoly and special interest groups. The violence inflicted upon Julian Assange for his factual revelations should serve as a warning to all publishers, journalists, writers, artists, whistleblowers and anyone of integrity who values human rights, justice, honesty, and democracy.

Freedom of speech is what protects us all from tyrannical governments. It brings them into check when they acquire too much power. A government which represents those with money and power serves only to foster a climate of corruption and fear. It does nothing to address the increasing division between rich and poor and the growing population of those who find themselves afflicted by poverty or sent to fight wars of aggression.

Julian Assange was a leader in researching facts, exposing corruption, crime, and injustice. He became a teacher for those who value original thought and inspired critical thinking. Without such people our world is poorer.

My question therefore is: Where do you stand with regard to the treatment of Julian Assange and others who are willing to risk their freedoms in speaking truth and revealing information that the state finds embarrassing, including that of war crimes and crimes against humanity?

  1. See  Craig Murray, “Violence and the State“, December 3, 2019.

Journalism is Not a Crime

Every time we witness an injustice and do not act, we train ourselves to be passive in its presence.

— Julian Assange

In what Canadian news room is what’s happening to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and to press freedom not worthy of the public’s right to know?

This week Swedish prosecutors dropped their sexual misconduct investigation of Assange for lack of evidence. On CBC’s The National, Ian Hanomansing took less than 10 seconds to update the nation on what is arguably the most important press freedom story of our time.

On October, 21 Assange, whose incarceration in high security Belmarsh prison in London has been deemed “psychological torture” by UN special rapporteur Nils Melzer, entered the next phase in the proceedings to extradite him to the US. If convicted as charged under 18 counts of the 1917 US Espionage Act, Assange could face 175 years of prison for publishing US war crimes.

Was there not one Canadian journo assigned to a London bureau who was curious enough to walk over to Westminster Magistrates Court and file a report?

The October 21 hearing set the timetable for US extradition of the much-maligned Australian publisher. Assange’s lawyers had requested more time to prepare their evidence, including vital evidence from a Spanish court investigating security company UC Global hired by the CIA to spy on Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy. Assange’s lawyers also requested a preliminary hearing to determine whether the extradition treaty applied at all arguing that political offences are excluded from the extradition treaty. District magistrate Vanessa Baraitser dismissed the argument and told Assange that his full extradition case would begin on February 25, as scheduled.

Former UK diplomat and independent journalist Craig Murray was at the hearing. He said,

The reasons given by Assange’s defense team for more time to prepare were both compelling and startling. They had very limited access to their client in jail and had not been permitted to hand him any documents about the case until one week ago. He had also only just been given limited computer access (reportedly an inadequate device), and all his relevant records and materials had been seized from the Ecuadorean Embassy by the US Government; he had no access to his own materials for the purpose of preparing his defense.

Why is this unfolding press freedom drama with implications for the future of journalism as we know it not on the news?

The US investigation of Assange and Wikileaks first began in 2010 under Obama after the transparency web site published Chelsea Manning’s leaked State Department cables, Guantanamo secrets, the Afghan War Diaries and the Iraq War Logs which includes Collateral Murder the helicopter gunsight video that shows unprovoked slayings of civilians by US troops in the streets of Baghdad. Obama’s Department of Justice stopped short of bringing charges to Assange, “out of concerns that a precedent could be set for prosecuting publishers,” reported the New York Times.

In April when Assange was dragged out of his seven-year asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy and carted off to Belmarsh Trump’s DOJ charged Assange with conspiring with military analyst Chelsea Manning to publish what it calls “the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States.” In May when the US added spying charges to Assange’s indictment the New York Times reported, “It is a marked escalation in the effort to prosecute Mr. Assange, one that could have a chilling effect on American journalism as it has been practiced for generations.”

Free press advocacy groups say the US Justice Department’s case against Assange will be “to redefine national-security journalism as a form of espionage.” Assange’s lawyers: “Our case will be that this is a political attempt to signal to journalists the consequences of publishing information.”

Canadian journalists have yet to be heard from about what it means should US extra-judicial proceedings seek to criminalize Canadian journalism – receiving and publishing classified material from a government source. That’s what journalists do.

But if you type ‘Julian Assange’ into the search engine of any major Canadian news outlet looking for the latest on Assange’s case what comes up is the same wire services report from Associated Press or Reuters re-published by the Star, the Globe, the National Post, CTV News, CBC News et al.

The invisibility of journalism on Canadian news screens about this urgent press freedom spectacle playing out before our eyes is more than a headscratcher, it’s a violation of the public’s right to know. Where are the press freedom round tables? Where are the j-school debates?

  • First published at National Observer.
  • Dangerous Detentions: Julian Assange and Remaining in Belmarsh

    Much ink has been spilled in textbooks describing situations where autocratic states can behave badly. They abuse rights; they ignore international law and they ride roughshod over conventions. Liberal democracies may boast that they follow matters to the letter of the law, and make sure that citizens are given their fair and just cause in putting forth their cases. The practice suggests all too glaringly that the opposite is true.

    The English legal tradition, with its historically brutal punishments, adoration of the fetish known as the rule of law, and a particular tendency towards a miscarriage of justice, has found a rich target in Julian Assange. Behind the stiffness of procedure and the propriety of convention, cruelties are being justified with grinding regularity.

    On September 22, Assange would have been released from HMP Belmarsh, a maximum security centre whose reputation betrays much in the way the authorities wish to handle the publisher. The 50-week jail term imposed for skipping bail was a mild matter relative to others serving life sentences in the prison, but a statement had to be made both to those wishing to emulate Assange and Britain’s cousins across the Atlantic. But that term of imprisonment was never meant to be genuinely observed in the scheme of things; its termination merely being a point in a broader scheme of ongoing detention. It was a mere hiccup in a conversation which involves US power. The Washington security establishment is salivating for its quarry, and Britain is playing minder.

    This means keeping him in indefinite detention, or at least till US authorities make their case, however unconvincing. At the Westminster Magistrates court hearing on September 13, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser was short and sharp. “You have been produced today because your sentence of imprisonment is about to come to an end. When that happens your remand status changes from serving prisoner to a person facing extradition.”

    The District Judge explained how she had given Assange’s lawyer “an opportunity to make an application for bail on your behalf and she has declined to do so, perhaps not surprising in light of your history of absconding in these proceedings.” In that explanation, a cosmos of meaning can be discerned. Any application for bail would have been futile in any case, given that the judge had made up her mind. “In my view I have substantial ground for believing if I release you, you will abscond again.”

    The judge was also being more than a touch disingenuous. The hearing could not, in any genuine way, be described as a bail hearing, despite being represented as such. It was, in fact, a technical hearing, meaning that the magistrate had effectively refused bail even before a formal request by the defence. Such tendencies towards premature adjudication do not do the legal profession proud.

    The curious reference to “these proceedings” suggested a continuum of prosecution against Assange conflating both Swedish and US attempts to extradite him. His punishment for skipping bail was not connected to the current US case, at least directly, but avoiding the extradition to Sweden in an attempt to question him over allegations of sexual assault.

    To the judicial officer, it was all the same picture of reason, the same cheek shown in avoiding the inevitable. Never mind that Assange exercised his rights to asylum, that the reason he fled to the Ecuadorean embassy in 2012 was based on a genuine, and now proven fear, that he could be extradited to the United States to face charges with a cumulative prison time of 175 years. Best bang him up in the cells as a warmer for the US effort, which is set to gather steam for a February extradition hearing.

    While Britain continues its immolating ritual in how it leaves the European Union, there are murmurings of protest keeping the matter of Assange’s fate alive. On Saturday, a modest protest took place outside Belmarsh, sporting the staple banners: “Don’t shoot the messenger”; “Free, free Julian Assange”; “Hands off Assange”.

    Labour MP Chris Williamson was on hand to address those gathered. “Here we have a situation where someone who we should be celebrating is facing solitary confinement, which is tantamount to torture taking place on British soil. This cannot be allowed to stand.”

    Williamson’s rationale is based on a traditional suspicion of the overreach of US power, and not a view shared by the mainstream plodders in British politics. “We have a moral duty to fight for Julian Assange, whose only crime is to expose war crimes by the US and the abuse of state powers.”

    Williamson has also made the observation that his country has become rather slapdash with its application of legal principle, despite taking some historical pride in defending human rights. “Britain is increasingly behaving like a tin-pot dictatorship in its dealing with him.” While Assange suffers, British politicians, notably those in Camp Brexit, see only one dictatorship: the EU. Their idea of the Sceptred Isle remains pure.

    There are accounts about Assange’s failing health that jab and trigger the occasional splash of publicity. Assange’s father, John Shipton, has described how, during a visit in August, his son looked “a bit shaky, and is suffering from anxiety. He has lost a lot of weight. It is very distressing, and the intensity of his treatment has increased over the past year.”

    The UN Special Rapporteur, Nils Melzer, has also issued stirring assessments of Assange’s detention, with its compounding cruelties. “In 20 years of work with victims of war, violence and political prosecution, I have never seen a group of democratic states gang up to deliberately isolate, demonise and abuse a single individual for such a long time and with so little regard for human dignity and the rule of law. The collective punishment of Julian Assange must end here and now.” Sadly, and depressingly for publishers, the process continues, wearingly and destructively.

    Assange’s Persecution Rides on Feeble Lies

    Remember when it was obligatory to call Julian Assange paranoid?

    That changed in March when the first of 18 US indictments confirmed designs to get him. All charges pertain to Wikileaks data that made him famous in 2010. Hard proof that hounding ensued from those initial releases accordingly forced the punditry to reconsider at least one of its armchair diagnoses of Assange.

    Though most are unaware of the details, such hostile pursuit has concerned more than a few countries and institutions. UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer, recently stated that in “20 years of work with victims of war, violence and political persecution, I have never seen a group of democratic states ganging up to deliberately isolate, demonize and abuse a single individual for such a long time.”

    This follows upon the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention’s finding in 2015, reiterated in 2018, that Assange had been continuously arbitrarily detained in one from or another since 2010.

    The official US reaction to Melzer’s report has naturally been to decry the content. It starts upon this with a certain fable of righteousness, which implies that a dog snarling into the hole of a rabbit does not confine it there:

    Mr Assange voluntarily stayed in the embassy to avoid facing lawful criminal charges pending against him. As such his time in the embassy did not constitute confinement and was in no way arbitrary.

    Like the term ‘confinement,’ the word ‘arbitrary’ is a weasel in this particular fable. It does not function in human rights law to imply any lack of rationale, but to identify the rationale of some authority as crucially unprincipled. Where such a fault applies it is likely to be ignored, misrepresented and/or distracted from by the culpable authority. Hence, as in the quote above, they tend to assert some righteous motive, real or fictional, as centrally vindicating.

    It is common and wrong for those reprimanded to respond this way, since their place is to respect the findings of UN appointees and if necessary, reasonably correspond with them. The entire point of international law is that countries are legally held to account. In terms of the presently relevant human rights covenants, this involves a regime of independent assessment as to whether they are complying with the covenants they ratified. No brute enforcement applies here and the system should work perfectly well without it, if only the signatories abide by it in good faith.

    In this primary and neglected context, the account that the US has given of itself has been a spectacular self-incrimination. The two sentences quoted above happen to assert the main premise of Assange and appointees from the UN who saw fit to defend him. For it is plainly implied in the quote that staying in the embassy was the logical means he appropriated to avoid negative repercussions intentionally prepared for him by the US in response his publishing.

    The US is accordingly reduced to pretending that, as claimed above, the charges are internationally and nationally lawful. There is nothing to back this up other than legal paragraphs that have been long shunned, relentless obfuscation and a bully’s glare. The charges have been nigh universally denounced as an unprecedented threat to democracy which contradicts the letter and spirit of the US first amendment.

    The response to Melzer from the US accordingly backfires and largely because its position from the outset has been foreign to reason. Its officials were obliged to reply to Melzer and apparently felt they managed to do this without committing to an abortive position. If so, they were deeply mistaken for reasons above, and also below.

    The letter took exception to any notion that narratives about Assange, or indeed “commentary” in general, could be “cruel, inhuman or degrading…as defined by the Convention on Torture.”

    Exclusion of the linguistic modes of relevant abuse is, however, clearly tendentious and searching the terms reveals that, contra the claim, they are nowhere defined or otherwise relevantly qualified in that convention.

    This apparent chicanery culminates in the charge that, in virtue of finding fault with injurious disinformation, Melzer’s report has “dangerous implications for freedom of expression.” There is one clear sense in which that is true. An emerging sport of persecuting publishers could become endangered if human rights law had a chilling effect upon smearing them.

    These positions taken by the US are in reaction to Melzer specifying concerted defamation as contributing to the debilitating and life-threatening persecution of Assange over a decade.

    Without that malicious campaign, none of the gross injustice that he has endured, or which still looms, could have gained a foothold. Complicity of the press is therefore at the heart of this story.

    Much has been said of the leading role taken by the Guardian here, but consider this deceptively bland token from the Washington Post which featured in its report on Melzer’s earlier statements:

    Assange regularly complained about how Ecuador treated him while he took refuge in a corner room of its red-brick embassy. He unsuccessfully sued the Foreign Ministry last year over demands that he pay for his medical bills and clean up after his cat — among other conditions he said were intended to force him from the embassy. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights also dismissed his complaints.

    The first critical omission here is the reason his mentioned suit did not succeed. It was mindfully passed by an Ecuadorian judge into a fenced pit, previously known as Ecuador’s Constitutional Court. This had been shut down two months before Assange’s suit and was rebooted another three months later, with all-new, US-partial judges and a backlog of 13,000 cases.

    So Assange’s team approached the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, which did not dismiss his complaints, as misreported above by the Post. Rather, it admonished Ecuador not to violate his rights by breaking asylum law with an act of expulsion, as starkly threatened in its foisted “protocol.” The IACHR refused nothing to Assange besides precautionary measures to prevent this expulsion, which transpired a month later, to their natural embarrassment. These points only further establish Melzer’s finding of illegal abuse by Ecuador and decimate the tales from the Post.

    Also unmentioned were Ecuador’s included prohibition on his free expression and a crackdown on privacy of his visitors. Instead, Assange was portrayed as whining about such things as medical bills and pet care. Yet Ecuador never paid a health bill for him and nobody ever thought to ask them to. Nor did Assange or his legal team ever protest any stipulation about his cat, except as a baseless insinuation of neglect on his part, which was strategic and virally effective.

    Fidel Narvaez, consul at the embassy for the first six years of Assange’s stay, witnessed the beginning of his persecution under the new President Moreno. Narvaez describes Assange a friend whose relations with permanent staff were always respectful and abidingly positive. The media chorus that “he wore out his welcome” thus evinces horrendous incompetence or worse. He was unwelcome only to political enemies in Ecuador, and that from the day he sought asylum. Moreno revealed his position here by speaking of Assange as “stone in the shoe” and “inherited problem,” while former President Correa remains outspoken in defence of Assange and denounces Moreno for betraying his party and country upon taking power.

    The informed side of this controversy is not the orthodox one and Melzer has called the bluff of a lie-infused Western establishment. Hence all that is required to win this debate is to force it. That is why he speaks up, with hard and documented facts, and why we must follow suit.