Category Archives: Torture

Britannic Impunity: The UK Overseas Operations Bill

It was praised by Michael Clarke, former Director-General of the Royal United Services Institute, as “clear and entire laudable” – at least up to a point.  The UK Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill would “give [British] troops serving overseas much-needed extra protection against fraudulent or frivolous claims against them of criminal behaviour.”  It was also part of a commitment made by the Conservatives that British personnel would be padded with more legal protection against the nasty designs of future litigants.

Veterans minister Johnny Mercer had his lines in order, and they were not particularly convincing.  “This legislation is not about providing an amnesty or putting troops above the law but protecting them from lawyers intent on rewriting history to line their own pockets.”  For Mercer, Britannia is exceptional, a cut above the rest, suggesting, in the lingering wisdom of British imperialism, that they are just a bit more exceptional in hypocrisy than others.

The Ministry of Defence has been feathering grounds for such changes arguing that unnecessary claims have been made against its personnel.  They include compensation claims for unlawful detention regarding operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.  To this can be added 1,400 judicial review claims for investigations and compensations on the basis that human rights have been violated. Of these, 70 percent assessed by the Iraq Historic Allegations Team were dismissed as having no case to answer.

Instances such as those of solicitor Phil Shiner are cited, that ever zealous creature who was found guilty on five counts of dishonesty by the Solicitor’s Disciplinary Tribunal in February 2017 for tampering with evidence submitted to the Al-Sweady inquiry into allegations of atrocities in Iraq.  Shiner was accused of showing a “clear disregard for the rules” in terms of his actions, having circulated “deliberate and calculated lies” regarding alleged atrocities by British soldiers after the commencement of the Iraq War.

The Bill has a particularly odious provision that serves to impose a five year time limit on prosecuting crimes that span offences committed by UK personnel while serving in overseas theatres, including a whole range of reprehensible offences, potentially including genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.  Operations “dealing with terrorism” and peacekeeping endeavours will also be covered.

What is being proposed is, in effect, a statute of limitations on grave criminality, a presumption against prosecution. Out with such solemn declarations that genocide is so reprehensible a crime as to defy time itself.  In with more practical, paperwork limitations shielding abuses from legal review.

This would be part of what is described as a “triple lock” against unwanted suits against UK military personnel, the two other features involving a range of considerations prosecutors would have to give “particular weight to” against pursuing a case, and a requirement to obtain the consent of the Attorney General, or Advocate General in Northern Ireland, before commencing any prosecution.  The Bill would also impose a duty on the government to consider derogating from the European Convention on Human Rights regarding significant overseas military operations.

To round it all off, Part II of the Bill also adds a time bar on civil claims against the Ministry of Defence by both survivors of torture and UK soldiers themselves who might have a grievance with their employer.  Claimants will also be barred by the time limit despite being unlawfully detained or impeded in bringing forth their actions.

Should it become law, the Bill will jar with obligations arising under the Geneva Conventions.  The Additional Protocol 1 of 1977 is a stand out on that score.  A range of other international legal instruments also risk being breached, including the Convention Against Torture.  As the legal action charity Reprieve argues in its submission to parliament on the Bill, “This risks effectively decriminalising torture when committed by UK forces overseas more than five years ago.”  The organisation even notes that the proposed law would run counter to a 300 year old tradition stretching back to the Long Parliament’s Abolition of the Star Chamber in 1640.

The legal establishment is also concerned.  In the sober words of the Law Society, “the proposal to introduce a presumption against prosecution amounts to a quasi-statute of limitations.  Introducing a time limit risks creating impunity for serious crimes and the proposal would be an exception to the normal law for a category of criminal matters that does not exist anywhere else.”

Another submission on the Bill, written by Samuel Beswick of the University of British Columbia, points to a potential violation of the Equality Principle found deep in the immemorial foundations of UK constitutional law, spectral as it is: “that everyone is equally subjected to the ordinary law of the land: that the Crown and government officers do not benefit from more favourable rules than apply to the British people generally.”

Such concerns have not been the preserve of legal bleeding hearts and anti-torture charities.  The Judge Advocate General Jeff Blankett has also expressed deep reservations.  In the middle of the year, he wrote to the Secretary of State for Defence noting “significant misgivings” about a bill “ill-conceived” and dangerous in potentially bringing “the UK armed forces into disrepute”.

As for David Greene, vice president of the Law Society, something more flame-on-the-hill was at stake, and he had little desire for snuffing it out.  “Our armed forces are rightly known across the world for their courage and discipline.  Proposals to prevent the prosecution of alleged serious offences – including murder and torture – by service personnel outside the UK would undermine this well-deserved reputation and could break international law.”

The Bill is a classic, long overdue unmasking of the impunity that is British military power.  More than a Freudian slip, it is an elucidating admission.  In praising the standards of British military professionalism, Greene ignores the country’s thin record in prosecuting its own nationals for crimes committed in foreign theatres.  Clive Baldwin, Senior Legal Adviser to Human Rights Watch, points to the butcher of Amritsar Brigadier General Reginald Dyer as a case in point.  The killing of hundreds of unarmed men, women and children on April 13, 1919 at Jallianwala Bagh did little to even provoke an apology from the UK.  The most severe rebuke Dyer faced was enforced retirement.  “You might want to rewrite history, but you can’t,” sniffed the High Commissioner to India, Dominic Asquith, during commemoration proceedings held last year.

The deployment of torture in Kenya through the 1950s in response to the Mau Mau revolt against British rule barely stirred the prosecutor’s brief.  In 2013, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague recognised in the Commons “that Kenyans were subject to torture and other forms of ill-treatment at the hands of the colonial administration.”   Sincere regrets were offered, including £19.9m in compensation.  But defiant to the last, Hague insisted that the UK had no legal responsibility for the actions of the colonial administration.  Britannic contempt is deathless.

In focusing on such exceptional instances of manipulation as Shiner, the Bill is a riposte to British responsibility for more recent abuses in such theatres as Iraq.  Despite public inquiries and court rulings finding British forces culpable for abusing detainees, in some cases killing them, few prosecutions have been filed.  The death of Iraqi citizen Baha Mousa in September 2003 in Basra, the result of 93 surface injuries, led to an inquiry and a smattering of Court Martial proceedings. It also saw the first open admission by a British soldier to committing a war crime, though Corporal Donald Payne denied manslaughter and perverting the course of justice.  Six other colleagues from the 1 Queen’s Lancashire Regiment were ultimately acquitted.  Payne was jailed for one year.  A meagre return.

With the passage of this Bill, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Global Britain will abandon any pretence to Queensberry rules, or rules of any sort. The jungle is there for the taking, and other powers in the jungle will finally be able to point this out.  Clarke, sounding sorrowful, uses the standard understatement: that this Bill “opens up some intriguing possibilities for our adversaries, who love to claim international legitimacy for their blatantly illegal behaviour.”  It might be a suitable epitaph for British power for long stretches it has been exercised: legitimacy claimed for blatant illegality.

The post Britannic Impunity: The UK Overseas Operations Bill first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Dying Alone: When We Stopped Caring for Palestinian Prisoners

“No one cares about the prisoners.” Over the past few years, I have heard this phrase — or some variation of it —  uttered many times by freed Palestinian prisoners and their families. Whenever I conduct an interview regarding this crucial and highly sensitive topic, I am told, repeatedly, that ‘no one cares.’

But is this really the case? Are Palestinian prisoners so abandoned to the extent that their freedom, life and death are of no consequence?

The subject, and the claim, resurfaces every time a Palestinian prisoner launches a hunger strike or undergoes extreme hardship and torture, which is leaked outside Israeli prisons through lawyers or human rights organizations. This year, five Palestinian prisoners died in prison as a result of alleged medical negligence, or worse, torture.

Even international humanitarian aid workers, like Mohammed el-Halabi, are not immune to degrading treatment.  Arrested in August 2016, el-Halabi is yet to be charged for any wrongdoing. News of his plight, which originally received some media attention — due to his work with a US-based organization – is now merely confined to Facebook posts by his father, Khalil.

As of October 1, el-Halabi has been paraded before 151 military trials, yet unaware what the charges are. The cherished Palestinian man, who has played a major role in providing cancer medicine to dying children in Gaza, now holds the record of the longest military trial ever carried out by the Israeli occupation.

Desperate for some attention, and fed up with cliches about their ‘centrality in the Palestinian struggle’, many prisoners, whether individually or collectively, launch hunger strikes under the slogan: ‘freedom or death’. Those who are held under the draconian and illegal ‘administrative detention’ policy, demand their freedom, while ‘security prisoners’, who are held in degrading conditions, merely ask for family visitations or food that is suitable for human consumption.

Health complications resulting from hunger strikes often linger long after the physical ordeal is over. I have interviewed families of Palestinians who were freed from Israeli prisons, only to die in a matter of months, or live a life of endless pain and constant ailments for years following their release.

According to some estimates, over 800,000 Palestinians have been imprisoned in Israeli jails since the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza in June 1967.

Maher al-Akhras is currently writing the latest chapter in this tragic narrative. At the time of writing this article, he has just concluded 77 days of uninterrupted hunger strike. No medical opinion is necessary to tell us that al-Akhras could die any moment. A recent video released of al-Akhras on his Israeli hospital bed conveyed a glimpse of the man’s unbearable suffering.

With a barely audible voice, the gaunt, exhausted-looking man said that he is left with only two options: either his immediate freedom or death within the confines of Israel’s “phony justice system.”

On October 7, his wife, Taghrid, launched her own hunger strike to protest the fact that “no one cares about” her husband.

Once again, the lack of concern for the plight of prisoners, even dying ones, imposes itself on the Palestinian political discourse. So, why is this the case?

The idea that Palestinian prisoners are all alone in the fight for freedom began in the early 1990s. It was during this period that the various Oslo Accords were signed, dividing the Occupied Territories into zones governed by some strange Kafkaesque military system, one that did not end the Israeli occupation, but, rather, cemented it.

Largely dropped from the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations agenda at the time, but permanently, eventually, were several pressing issues fundamental to Palestinian rights and freedom. One of these issues was Israel’s brutal system of incarceration and imprisonment without trial.

Certainly, some Palestinian prisoners were released in small batches occasionally, as ‘gestures of goodwill’; but the system, itself, which gave Israel the right to arrest, detain and sentence Palestinians, remained intact.

To date, the freedom of Palestinian prisoners — nearly 5,000 of them are still held in Israel, with new prisoners added daily — is not part of the Palestinian leadership political agenda, itself subsumed by self-interests, factional fights and other trivial matters.

Being removed from the realm of politics, the plight of prisoners has, over the years, been reduced to a mere humanitarian subject — as if these men and women are no longer political agents and a direct expression of Palestinian resistance, on the one hand, and Israel’s military occupation and violence, on the other.

There are ample references to Palestinian prisoners in everyday language. Not a single press release drafted by the Palestinian Authority, its main Fatah faction or any other Palestinian group fails to renew the pledge to free the prisoners, while constantly glorifying their sacrifices. Unsurprisingly, empty language never produces concrete results.

There are two exceptions to the above maxim. The first is prisoner exchanges, like the one that took place in October 2011, resulting in the freedom of over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. And, second, the prisoners’ own hunger strikes, which are incremental in their achievements, but have, lately, become the main channel of resistance.

Sadly, even solidarity with hunger strikers is often factional, as each Palestinian political group often places disproportionate focus on their own striking prisoners and, largely ignores others. Not only has the issue of prisoners become depoliticized, it has also fallen victim to Palestine’s unfortunate disunity.

While it is untrue that ‘no one cares about Palestinian prisoners’, thousands of Palestinian families are justified to hold this opinion. For the freedom of prisoners to take center stage within the larger Palestinian struggle for freedom, the issue must be placed at the top of Palestine’s political agenda, by Palestinians themselves and by Palestinian solidarity networks everywhere.

Maher al-Akhras, and thousands like him, should not risk their lives to obtain basic human rights, which should, in theory, be guaranteed under international law. Equally important, Palestinian prisoners should not be left alone, paying a price for daring to stand up for justice, fairness and for their people’s freedom.

The post Dying Alone: When We Stopped Caring for Palestinian Prisoners first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Assange’s Fifth Day at the Old Bailey: Supermax Prisons and Special Administrative Measures

Having had a coronavirus scare towards the end of last week, necessitating a brief suspension of proceedings for September 11, the extradition proceedings for Julian Assange resumed with Eric Lewis.  The chairman of the board of Reprieve, who has cut his teeth on representing Afghan detainees in US custody and those in Guantánamo, has not been shy in arguing against the extradition of Assange to the United States.  In 2019, he warned in The Independent that one did not have to swoon over Assange’s politics or embrace his personality “to understand that if he is extradited to the United States, not only does he face a de facto life sentence, but every journalist who receives and publishes classified information faces such jeopardy as well.”

Emphasis during the day’s proceedings was placed on the potential consequences of Assange’s pre-trial detention and incarceration.  Think of the ADX Florence, Colorado, with such non-commodious confines that would fall within the definition of solitary confinement.

James Lewis QC for the prosecution had been consulting his authorities, suggesting that the European Court of Human Rights had an instructive answer favourable to the US side.  In Babar Ahmad & Others v United Kingdom, a 2012 case involving six defendants accused of terrorism, the ECHR was not unfavourable to aspects of the US justice system.  The applicants, including four British nationals, an Egyptian and a Saudi Arabian, argued that they were at real risk of ill-treatment in the US from the conditions of supermax prisons including “special administrative measures” (SAMs) or the possible length of sentencing in the US.

The ECHR concluded “that there would be no violation of the applicants’ rights if extradited to stand trial in the United States.”  The court accepted the argument made by the UK that the risk of real torture constituted an absolute bar to extradition but that other forms of ill-treatment did not.  “[T]he absolute nature of Article 3 [of the European Convention on Human Rights] does not mean that any form of ill-treatment will act as a bar to removal from a Contracting State.”  A deciding factor would be whether the risk was “real” or “whether it was alleviated by diplomatic and prosecutorial assurances given by the requesting State.”

The judgment itself suffers from a judicial preoccupation with procedural soundness rather than prison reality, not to mention an unhealthy degree of trust.  The court was ready to accept the submissions made by the US that the inmates would not unduly suffer mistreatment, given various safeguards.  “The Federal Bureau of Prisons applies accessible and rational criteria when deciding whether to transfer an inmate to ADX [supermax prison].”   The placement process “is accompanied by a high degree of involvement of senior official within the Bureau who are external to the inmate’s current institution.  Their involvement and requirement that a hearing be held before transfer provide an appropriate measure of procedural protection.”

The words of Babar Ahmad were music to the prosecutor’s ears, and the case was duly thrown back at the board chairman of Reprieve.  It suggested another angle in the prosecution strategy: Assange’s frail mental health should not prevent him from being extradited to the US.  Eric Lewis suggested that the ECHR case should be distinguished from Assange’s.  For one thing, more material on the sinister nature of such supermax facilities had come to light since 2012. He also suggested that mental health was not a crucial factor being debated in the Babar case.

Unfortunately, this ignored the fact that three defendants relied on their mental health as relevant in the challenge.  Such health, noted the ECHR, had not prevented them being confined to “high-security prisons in the United Kingdom.”  The submission from Dr Paul Zohn, a psychologist assigned to assess ADX Florence, gave it a few good licks of decency.  “Care was provided by one psychiatrist and two psychologists who made regular rounds through the housing units at ADX.”  The inmates were not short of treatment programs.  “On the basis of Dr Zohn’s application, it would not appear that the psychiatric services which are available at ADX would be unable to treat such [mental health] conditions.”  There would be no violation of Article 3 should the inmates find themselves detained at ADX.

Despite the judicial heads reaching that conclusion, history is an instructive and refuting guide.  Babar Ahmad subsequently described his experience.  “During the supermax prison time in America, for two years I lived through complete hell.  Those two years were the darkest days of my life… I saw one suicide attempt a week, three suicide attempts in one day.”  The ECHR had also ignored US efforts in preventing the United Nations from evaluating the conditions present in such carceral facilities.  As the UN special rapporteur on torture, Juan Méndez, told the UN Human Rights Council in March 2016, “My request to visit the United States of America has been pending for five years over the terms of reference in order to obtain access to all places of detention.”

The application of SAMs has also been deemed, as the Center for Constitutional Rights and Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School did in their 2017 report, “the darkest corner of the US federal prison system, combining the brutality and isolation of maximum security units with additional restrictions that deny individuals almost any connection to the human world.”  Restrictions involve “gag orders on prisoners, their family members, and their attorneys, effectively shielding this extreme use of government power from public view.”

Given that the US Attorney General has sole discretion to use SAMs, the procedural protections accepted as adequate in Babar Ahmad would have to be reconsidered.  No adequate reason is needed for their imposition, even in a pre-trial setting; the Attorney General’s citing of the relevant charges is considered sufficient and besides, national security considerations are always elastic.  In the words of the CCR report, “They cannot challenge the SAMS designation until after they are placed under SAMs.  Even then, like all federal prisoners, they risk having their cases dismissed for failure to exhaust the effectively meaningless Administrative Remedy Program.”

In this punitive nightmare, prisoners can be subject to such administrative measures indefinitely.  Assange might also face the prospect of continued obstruction to legal counsel, hobbling his means of mounting challenges.  Most troublingly, the use of SAMS can become a punitive bargaining tool, coercing the accused into pleading guilty and cooperating with the authorities.

For prosecutor Lewis, the Babar Ahmad case enabled him to quibble and disagree about the degrees of justifiable cruelty and mental harm that might be visited upon Assange.  To assist his cause, he doubted the expert witness’ qualifications on assessing whether Assange would receive appropriate medical care in the US prison system.  “The bullying prosecutor,” observed journalist John Pilger, “is reduced to insulting the integrity of expert witnesses.”  The witness was also challenged for his lack of impartiality, which had the genuine tone of a pot-calling-the-kettle-black moment.

Eric Lewis stood firm.  While admitting to not being a psychiatrist or a warden, he was “an expert in the US prison system.”  Nor was bias a problem: his views since 2019 on extraditing Assange had not changed.

The testimony sought to drag the matter back to Assange as a special case.  While it did not fall within the category of terrorism, the authorisation of SAMs by Attorney General William Barr would engage the offices of the CIA, whose current director, Gina Haspel, did a nice line in operating black sites sanctioning the use of torture.  As Kevin Gosztola reports, “Haspel is complicit in some of the very examples of US torture that WikiLeaks exposed, and yet she would be able to play a role in determining how he was controlled and silenced while awaiting trial.”  Whether detained at the Alexandria Detention Center awaiting trial, where he would face solitary confinement, or convicted and sent to H Block at ADX Florence, Assange might well find himself on “the only known black site on American soil”.

As with other witnesses, Eric Lewis also reminded the court of various comments by Trump administration officials (former CIA director Mike Pompeo; former Attorney General Jeff Sessions) that indicated a definite and aggressive shift towards prosecuting Assange from that of the Obama administration.  The stuttered nature of the indictment process suggested a certain malice of prolongation: charges fitted to gain the lengthiest sentences.

Towards the end of the day’s proceedings, journalists found themselves cut off from the video link to the court, only to then be informed of its abrupt close.  Stefania Maurizi wondered whether this might be due to technical challenges facing UK courts or hacking.  Either way, it was symbolically apt for a trial that is turning, with each day, into a distorted parody of justice.

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Assange’s Second Day at the Old Bailey

The highlights of the second day of Julian Assange’s extradition proceedings at the Central Criminal Court in London yielded an interesting bounty. The first was the broader public purpose behind the WikiLeaks disclosures, their utility in legal proceedings, and their importance in disclosing instances of US extrajudicial killings, torture and rendition. The second involved a discussion about the practice of journalism and the politicised nature of the prosecution against Assange.

Human rights attorney Clive Stafford Smith and founder of Reprieve, an organisation specialising in investigating instances of US detention, rendition and disappearances, was called by Mark Summers QC for the defence. The disclosures by WikiLeaks, he claimed, had been important in the issue of challenging the legitimacy of US drone strikes in Pakistan. Successful litigation conducted in that country found such strikes “criminal offences and that criminal proceedings should be initiated against senior US officials involved in such strikes.” A high court in Pakistan had found that they constituted a “blatant violation of basic human rights”. Stafford Smith noted how the drone assassination program “leaked over to narcotics … they were targeting people for death for their involvement in drug trade because it was seen as funding terrorism. I could go on…”

The statement submitted to the court by Stafford Smith also emphasised how the WikiLeaks material disclosed on the treatment of detainees in Guantánamo were “the top of a very important discourse that would seem to be important in the public interest, about the abysmal intelligence used to detain prisoners and make important public policy decisions.” Stafford Smith’s statement also volunteers a twist: that the material published by WikiLeaks on the subject seemed to be “the best face that the US government could put on the crimes it had committed against the Guantánamo prisoners.”

In his testimony, Stafford Smith affirmed the mixed returns of those disclosures. The leaks initially seemed to portray “the very worst that the US authorities confect about the prisoners I have represented”. He was “frustrated” on first reading the WikiLeaks documents, thinking “they would leak what I get to see”. The mosaic, however, was pieced together to disprove the case against his client.

When it came to discussing the issue of enhanced interrogation techniques used by US personnel, Stafford Smith suggested the similarities shown in method to those used in the Spanish Inquisition. “As you go through the documentation WikiLeaks leaked, there are all sorts of things identified, including where people are taken and renditioned … and that was the case in Binyam’s case.” In being part of an effort to hold US officials to account for war crimes, Stafford Smith had a teasing pointer on the implications for WikiLeaks. “Anyone can be sanctioned who is seeking to assist in an investigation which could lead to ICC [International Criminal Court] investigation, which is what WikiLeaks does”. It was a pointed reminder that Assange’s defence team could well fall within the remit of US sanctions currently directed at the ICC by the Trump administration.

In his overall assessment, Stafford Smith suggested that, “The power and value of WikiLeaks disclosures about Iraq and Afghanistan can scarcely be understated, and are of ‘key importance’ to ‘evidence war crimes and human rights violations by the US and its allies.”

All of this left James Lewis QC of the prosecution more than a touch cranky. Stafford Smith had referred to cables that did not form the subject of charges against Assange. They were, claimed Lewis, irrelevant; the US case was only concerned with those documents that had revealed the names of informants. The defence claim is precisely the opposite: that such documents as referred to by Stafford Smith would also be covered by the charges of Assange “communicating” and “obtaining” classified material. The whole show could be the subject of a prosecution on US soil.

Cheekily, Stafford Smith suggested that Lewis was “wrong about the way in which cases are prosecuted” in the US. Merely because such cables were not outlined in the indictment did not suggest prosecutors would not use them in trial. “You cannot tell the court how this case will be prosecuted. You’re making things up.”

Such legal bickering proved too much for Assange. “This is nonsense,” he claimed from the dock. “Apparently my role is to sit here and legitimate what is illegitimate by proxy.” Cue Judge Vanessa Baraitser, who took witheringly to the intervention. “I understand of course you will hear things, most likely many things you would not like, and you would like to intervene but it is not your role.” While Assange remaining in court was “something the court would wish for”, it “could proceed without you.”

A feature that has stood out in the entire endeavour against Assange is the stench of politics. Lewis disagrees; the investigation into Assange and WikiLeaks has been an organic, methodical one, building since 2010 and flowering in 2020. The testimony of journalism academic Mark Feldstein suggested otherwise. He referred to a Washington Post piece from November 2013 highlighting the decision by the Obama administration to not proceed. Officials from the Justice Department did stress at the time that no “formal decision” had been made, as the grand jury investigating WikiLeaks remained impanelled. But there was “little possibility of bringing a case against Assange, unless he is implicated in criminal activity other than releasing online top-secret military and diplomatic documents.” The implications of prosecuting Assange were evidently clear: to do so would lead to the obvious conclusion that US news organisations and journalists would also face the prosecutor’s brief.

This cautionary attitude was not to be found at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In 2017, they were seeking a “head on a pike”. By then, President Donald Trump had moved into an offensive mode against journalists; the then director of the Central Intelligence Agency Mike Pompeo was resolute in categorising WikiLeaks as a hostile non-state intelligence agency, while Jeff Sessions as Attorney-General was all zeal in asking prosecutors to take a closer look at the Assange case.

But the worm had not entirely turned. Federal attorneys such as James Trump, a figure in the prosecution of former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, who had leaked classified material to journalist James Risen, and Daniel Grooms, demurred. Both were concerned that undertaking such a prosecution would fall foul of the First Amendment, and be plagued by legal and factual challenges.

Feldstein pushed home the points in his testimony in deeming the efforts against Assange political in nature. The scope of the charges had no precedent; the Obama administration had shown reservations in embarking on what would be a fraught process; the wording of the superseding indictment suggested political leanings; and Trump had shown a deep antipathy for the press. Previous efforts to prosecute journalists, he concluded, were “obviously highly political”.

Undeterred, the prosecution resorted to a conventional tactic: accusing the witness of speculating. The reality Feldstein needed to consider was whether names had been revealed in the publication of such documents. Doing so would result in harm. If this had been the case, suggested Feldstein, the prosecution might have simply used the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, a narrower statute for the purpose. Instead, terms such as “conspiracy” and “recruiting” – the sort normally coupled with “terrorist”, had been deployed. Besides, the issue of “harm” tended to be a bread and butter response by governments that was impossible to prove and used to conceal improprieties.

As a case in point, that most pertinent of precedents, the Pentagon Papers, was cited. As Feldstein noted, the arguments made by prosecutors at the time about the consequences of their disclosure – possible prolongation of the Vietnam War, identification of CIA officials, exposure of war plans – were also caught up in the concept of “immediate and irreparable” harm. It subsequently transpired that one prosecutor thought no harm would arise at all. What mattered was the effort by the Nixon administration to question the loyalty of media outlets.

Standard journalistic method, Feldstein reiterated, directs the source, asking what is needed and seeking more information as relevant. The journalist effectively works with the source. Criminalising that as a case of “conspiring” would make the “most of what investigative journalists do … criminal.”

On the point of the journalist’s craft, the prosecution continued to push the precarious argument that the publishing activities of the New York Times were different from that of WikiLeaks. Journalists did not steal or unlawfully obtain information. Here, Feldstein conceded, things could be murky. “We journalists are not passive stenographers. To suggest receiving anonymously in the mail is the only way is wrong.” As to whether he had engaged in publishing such information, Feldstein was unequivocal: not so much “classified documents” but certainly “soliciting and publishing secret information.”

A balanced overview of the day’s proceedings would have found Lewis struggling with the prosecution narrative focusing on alleged harm caused by Assange, the defence resolute in returning to the big picture element of the disclosures. This was too much to expect from the pedestrian reporting of a Fourth Estate more obsessed with Assange the man. From The Guardian to the Daily Beast, only one thing mattered: the warning by Judge Baraitser that Assange should keep silent and avoid any outbursts. As Kevin Gosztola observed, “US prosecutors win the news cycle on Day 2.”

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West attacks the World:  The World levitates towards Russia and China  

Frankly and in summary: recently The United States of America has crossed several lines, committing atrocities, in many parts of the world. In the past, no country could get away with this; such situations would inevitably lead to war.

Presently, war is “avoided” only because the world is too frightened of Washington and its mafia-style deeds. Countries on all continents are accepting the lawlessness and thuggery of Washington and the allies; bitterly, but accepting. If ordered, many of them have been falling on their knees, begging for mercy. If hit hard, they have lost the courage and strength to hit back.

There are no sanctions, no embargos imposed on the US, which is the biggest violator of international law. There are no retaliatory actions taken against its bullying, attacks, covert and overt operations. The U.N. has become a laughing stock, toothless and irrelevant, synonymous with Western interests.

The fact is – the world is scared. It is petrified. Just as a little creature is petrified and immobilized, when faced by a cobra.

It has gotten to this level. To a primitive, never before witnessed level. In the past, colonies fought back, aiming at independence. Indochina fought against the Western Empire, losing millions, but fought.

Now, Washington and its allies commit crimes, and they laugh straight in the faces of victims: “Now what? What are you going to do? Hit me back? Just try; I will burn your family members alive, break all your bones.”

You think I am exaggerating? Oh no, I am not; not at all! This is the level the West really has sank to. And almost no one dares to talk about it! Except… Well, of course, except Russia, China, Iran and few other brave nations.

*****

But look at what has happened to Iran. It is just an example of how thuggish, how insane Washington’s foreign policy is (if one could really call it a foreign policy):

Iran has done nothing bad to anyone; at least not in recent modern history. In 1953, the West arranged and implemented a horrific coup against the democratic, left-leaning Prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. Washington and London put on the throne a real monster – Shah Reza Pahlavi. Millions of lives were ruined. People were tortured, raped, and murdered. Then, in 1980, Iraq was armed and unleashed against Iran, again by the West. Consequently, hundreds of thousands of people died.

But, no, that was not enough! Modern, socialist and internationalist Iran helped to defend the entire Middle East against terrorism which has been released by the West and its allies in the Gulf. Teheran also joined forces with several left-wing countries in Latin America, including Venezuela, helping them, among other things, to build social housing, media outlets, and the oil industry.

Therefore, Iran became the target of the U.S. and Israel. President Trump cancelled the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a win-win agreement. For absolutely no reason, sanctions against Iran were re-introduced. Iran’s allies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere, were attacked by Israeli drones and by war planes, and by relentless Saudi bombing.

Then, the United States murdered the most revered Iranian military figure, General Qasem Soleimani, and they did it on Iraqi soil. This was a double act of war, against Iran and Iraq, which had officially invited General Soleimani in order to negotiate the peace process with the Saudis.

Then, the real banditry of Washington got exposed:

Iran, outraged and in mourning, has declared that it will retaliate; avenge the murder of its heroic commander, as well as the others who were killed by the U.S. attack near Baghdad airport. Trump and his entourage replied immediately, threatening Iran, declaring that if it dares to retaliate, it would face terrible re-retaliation.

Basically, the U.S. claims that it can kill your people anywhere it wants, and if you fight back, it reserves right to obliterate you.

The world has done nothing. It is doing nothing. The United Nations is taking zero concrete actions to stop the biggest bully.

On 4th January, 2020, Donald Trump Tweeted in 3 separate messages, something that vaguely resembled the language of the German occupation forces during WWII:

Iran is talking very boldly about targeting certain USA assets as revenge for our ridding the world of their terrorist leader who had just killed an American, & badly wounded many others, not to mention all of the people he had killed over his lifetime, including recently hundreds of Iranian protesters. He was already attacking our Embassy, and preparing for additional hits in other locations. Iran has been nothing but problems for many years. Let this serve as a WARNING that if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!

Outrageous lies, manipulations of a primitive businessman, elected by the American people to lead their country and the world. A man of no culture (one of the things that, perhaps, made him so popular among so many people in his country).

What he is really saying is this: “We overthrew your government, we unleash a war against you, we impose sanctions, prevent you from selling your own oil, and then we murder the second most important man in your country. That is all fine. But, if you defend yourself, if you dare retaliate, we will basically bomb your country back to the stone age, as we have bombed so many other countries to the stone age, including Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.”  All this is because the United Sates and West in general believe that they mainly consist of chosen people. That they are different. That they are by definition correct.

And that is, my friends and comrades, the same ‘philosophy’ used by ISIS, and by al Qaida. It is deep, extremist, religious fanaticism. As the United States uses market fundamentalism in its trade wars, it also applies primitive fanaticism in the way it deals with the rest of the world.

In a way, the world order is now resembling order imposed in Mosul under the ISIS occupation.

*****

After the killing of General Soleimani, the planet has exploded in outrage, including some of Washington’s allies. Even Israel has refused to back the U.S. in this particular case.

UNESCO (which the United States left after it recognized Palestine and after it refused to follow Washington’s diktat), issued a statement, reported by RT:

Meanwhile, UNESCO also told the US to stay away from Iran’s cultural heritage, reminding Washington that it is party to treaties which explicitly prohibit the targeting of cultural sites during armed conflict.

But that is not all. It has not ended with Iran only.

Iraq, outraged that the murder of Iranian allies took place on its soil, and that some of its people were also killed in the attack, demanded the full withdrawal of U.S. military forces.

The reply from Trump:

If they do ask us to leave, if we don’t do it on a very friendly basis, we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before, ever. We have a very extraordinarily expensive airbase that’s there. It cost billions of dollars to build. Long before my time. We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it.

Now just think what has been happening: Iraq was starved and bombed, and hundreds of thousands have died as a result of the depleted uranium that was used in U.S. warheads. Then came the U.S. invasion of 2003. The country was thoroughly ruined. Once proud Iraq, with a very high human development index (UNDP) virtually collapsed, became a beggar. On top of that, terrorist groups were injected into its territory, as they were, into Syria.

And now the President of the occupying country is demanding that the victim, Iraq, actually pays for the military bases constructed on its territory?

This is, of course, thoroughly sick, grotesque, but nobody is laughing, just as no one is publicly throwing up.

And these mafia tactics have been paying off, until now. Iraq, which finally dared to stand up, shouting enough is enough, down with the occupation, began backing down. Abdul Mahdi’s office issued a communique:

The prime minister stressed the importance of mutual cooperation on implementing the withdrawal of foreign troops, in line with the Iraqi parliament’s resolution, and to set relations with the United States on a proper foundation.

Of course, U.S. threats and U.S. armor on the Iraq’s territory, have been frightening too many people in Baghdad.

United States occupation forces have never brought anything good to their victims.

The best example is Afghanistan, the once proud socialist country, where women and men enjoyed equal rights. Around two decades after the US/NATO occupation, the country is the poorest, and with the shortest life expectancy, on the Asian continent.

I worked there on several occasions and was shocked by the bestiality of the U.S. rule. Burqa-clad women begging with their infants, sitting on speed-bumps near U.S. military bases. These bases are surrounded by poppy seeds, used for the cultivation and production of drugs, under U.S. and U.K. sponsorship. And foreign contractors, as well as NATO soldiers, shared with me horrific stories of spite: how unused food is burned by the Americans, while people are starving. How, when some old base is abandoned, it is dynamited and bulldozed down. The logic is simple: “There was nothing when we came, and there will be nothing after we leave!”

But paying for occupation bases is something new; a new concept by the empire.

Syria. “We want oil” declared Trump, recently. No niceties, no hide-and-seek. The U.S. military is staying. Turkish military, which has been supporting terrorists for years, is staying. The U.S.– backed Uyghur terrorists are staying in Idlib area. While, as recently as on February 24, Israelis have been bombing the outskirts of Damascus.

And, all this is allowed to happen. In broad daylight. Committed by people who openly support, even promote, torture. Imperialists whom the BBC recently described as ‘noninterventionists!” In brief: U.S. regime.

*****

In just the few latest months, Washington created and financed riots in Hong Kong, intimidating China, trying to trick the most populous nation into a crackdown against the treasonous cadres that are demanding the return of British colonialist rule, as well as a U.S. invasion.

China is also facing brutal Western propaganda attacks, related to coronavirus.

Washington overthrew the socialist, democratic multi-ethnic government in Bolivia, and it is starving millions of people, while backing an illegitimate self-proclaimed right-wing puppet political figure in Venezuela.

*****

The things the West does to China and Russia would lead to a war, if they were happening some 30 years ago.

The more diplomacy is used by Russia and China, the more aggressive the United States becomes, the more reassured of its own exceptionalism it gets.

It is time to re-think the entire concept of engagement with the United States.

It is because the United States and its allies have already crossed all lines and are now holding the entire world hostage.

Perhaps what we are all experiencing now is not a war, at least not in the classic sense of the word, but it is an occupation – brutal and shameless. Almost the entire planet used to be occupied by Europe, some 100 years ago. Now it is occupied, directly and indirectly, by Europe’s offspring – the United States. It is not always a military occupation, but occupation it is. World is held hostage. It is petrified. It doesn’t dare to speak, to dream, often even to think.

This is the most undemocratic global arrangement imaginable.

The world has fallen on its knees. It has surrendered itself, as if in some extremist religious ritual.

It gets hit but does not hit back. It gets looted, but doesn’t dare to protect itself and its people.

All this makes no sense: countries that got occupied, or where governments have been overthrown, are now living in absolute misery, even in agony: Iraq and Libya, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Honduras, Brazil, to name just a few.

For how long will the entire world lick the boots of a country with only around 300 million inhabitants, which produces hardly anything, and governs over the world through brutality and fear? It only prints money. It only insults human logic. It vulgarizes everything on earth; everything that used to be sacred to humanity.

I have to remind those who prefer not to notice: millions are dying, annually, all over the world, because of this “arrangement of the world”. Surrender and submission do not save lives. The empire never stops; it never has enough.

And one more old wisdom: kneeling in front of terror never brought liberation, or progress!

In more and more countries that I am visiting, all over the world, people are admiring “Russian way”, and “Chinese way”. You would never read this in Western mass media outlets, but precisely this is taking place: injured, brutalized and humiliated countries are beginning to levitate towards those great countries which are proudly standing and refusing to surrender to Western terror.

First published by NEO – New Eastern Outlook – a journal of the Russian Academy of Sciences

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.

Camp Bucca, Abu Ghraib and the Rise of Extremism in Iraq

Yesterday morning, President Trump announced the death of Abu Bakr Al- Baghdadi and three of his children.

President Trump said Al-Baghdadi, the founder of ISIS, was fleeing U.S. military forces, in a tunnel, and then killed himself by detonating a suicide vest he wore.

In 2004, Al-Baghdadi had been captured by U.S. forces and, for ten months, imprisoned in both Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca.

I visited Camp Bucca in January, 2004 when, still under construction, the Camp was a network of tents, south of Basra, in an isolated, miserable area of Iraq.

Before our three-person Voices delegation entered Iraq, that month, we waited for  visas in Amman, Jordan. While there, two young Palestinian men visited us and described their experiences during six months of imprisonment in Camp Bucca. Recalling the horrible experience, they remembered how fearful they felt, sleeping in sand infested with desert scorpions; they were paraded naked, for showers, in front of U.S. military women and told to bark like a dog or say “I love George Bush”  before their empty bowls would be filled with food. Unable to communicate with anyone outside the prison, they could only hope for release when their turn finally came to appear before a three-person Tribunal.

Five of their friends were still in the prison. They begged us to visit these friends and plead for their release. All of them were Palestinians studying for professional degrees in Baghdad. Reluctant to lose their chances of eventually graduating, they took a risk and remained in Baghdad throughout the 2003 Shock and Awe bombing. U.S. marines arrived at their dormitory on Baghdad’s Haifa Street and systematically rounded up students with foreign IDs. They were tagged as TCNs, “Third Country Nationals,” and herded off to various prisons.

In Baghdad, our friends in the Christian Peacemaker Teams had already developed a data base of names and prison numbers to help Iraqis discover the whereabouts of missing relatives. They found the prison numbers for two of the young men we were asked to visit and advised us to ask for Major Garrity, a U.S. military officer who was in charge of Camp Bucca.

We traveled to the southernmost town in Iraq, Umm Qasr, and sat on a weathered picnic table outside of Camp Bucca, awaiting Major Garrity’s decision. Prospects were bleak since we learned, upon arrival, that we’d come after visiting hours and the next day to visit was three days later. There was no shade, the sand was coated with black grease, and we constantly spat small black flies out of our mouths. Camp Bucca was one of the most hellish spots I’ve ever encountered. Yet we felt quite grateful when word arrived that Major Garrity had approved our visit.

A military pick-up truck drove us across an expanse of sand, and soon we were witnessing a tearful, tender embrace between one of the prisoners and his brother, a dentist from Baghdad, who had accompanied us. With no prompting, the prisoners, all in their twenties, corroborated the grievances their previously released friends expressed. They spoke of loneliness, monotony, humiliation and the fearful uncertainty prisoners face when held without charge by a hostile power with no evident plans to release them. They were, however, relieved to know we could tell their relatives we had met with them. Later, Major Garrity said the outlook for them being released wasn’t very positive. “Be glad they’re here with us and not in Baghdad,” she said, giving us a knowing look. “We give them food, clothes and shelter here. Be glad that they’re not in Baghdad.” Later, in May of 2004, CNN released pictures from the Abu Ghraib prison. We began to understand what she meant.

The November 3, 2005 issue of the New York Review of Books quoted three officers, two of them non-commissioned, stationed with the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Mercury in Iraq.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, they described in multiple interviews with Human Rights Watch how their battalion in 2003-2004 routinely used physical and mental torture as a means of intelligence gathering and for stress relief… Detainees in Iraq were consistently referred to as PUCs. The torture of detainees reportedly was so widespread and accepted that it became a means of stress relief, where soldiers would go to the PUC tent on their off-hours to “f**k a PUC” or “smoke a PUC.” “F**king a PUC” referred to beating a detainee, while “smoking a PUC” referred to forced physical exertion sometimes to the point of unconsciousness.

“Smoking” was not limited to stress relief but was central to the interrogation system employed by the 82nd Airborne Division at FOB Mercury. Officers and NCOs from the Military Intelligence unit would direct guards to “smoke” the detainees prior to an interrogation, and would direct that certain detainees were not to receive sleep, water, or food beyond crackers. Directed “smoking” would last for the twelve to twenty-four hours prior to an interrogation. As one soldier put it: “[The military intelligence officer] said he wanted the PUCs so fatigued, so smoked, so demoralized that they want to cooperate.

A sergeant told Human Rights Watch: “If he’s a good guy, you know, now he’s a bad guy because of the way we treated him.”

The violence that brought the Islamic State into being has a long history.

In numerous trips to Iraq from 1996 to 2003, our Voices delegation members grew to understand the unbearable weariness and suffering of Iraqi families eking out an uncertain existence under punishing economic sanctions. Between the wars, the death toll in children’s lives alone, from externally imposed economic collapse and from the blockade of food, medicine, water purification supplies and other essentials of survival, was estimated by the U.N. at 5,000 children a month, an estimate accepted without question by U.S. officials.

U.S. assaults, from Desert Storm (1991) to Shock and Awe (2003) — achieved through aerial bombings, children’s forced starvation, use of depleted uranium and white phosphorous, through bullet fire, night raids, blockaded medicines, emptied reservoirs and downed power lines, through abandoned state industries and cities left to dissolve in paroxysms of ethnic cleansing — have all been one continuous war. Along with the abuses of prisoners in places like Camp Bucca, FOB Mercury, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo, U.S. warfare predictably led to the buildup of ISIS and Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s commitment to “an eye for an eye.”

Asked, in 2016, to talk about his favorite passage in the Bible, President Trump said “eye for an eye.” He didn’t seem to realize that Jesus rejected this teaching.

“But I say unto you,” Jesus said, “love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.”

Rather than urge retaliation, Jesus spoke of dignified non-resistance through winning over the opponent.

We need not choose blindness, or the hatred that lets us be herded in fear. We can instead seek to pay reparations for suffering caused through our wars. We can work to abolish war, mourn the deaths of Al-Baghdadi’s children and question how conditions inside U.S. military camps in Iraq led to the extremism of Al-Baghdadi and his ISIS followers.

Assange in Court

I was deeply shaken while witnessing Monday’s events in Westminster Magistrates Court. Every decision was railroaded through over the scarcely heard arguments and objections of Assange’s legal team, by a magistrate who barely pretended to be listening.

Before I get on to the blatant lack of fair process, the first thing I must note was Julian’s condition. I was badly shocked by just how much weight my friend has lost, by the speed his hair has receded and by the appearance of premature and vastly accelerated ageing. He has a pronounced limp I have never seen before. Since his arrest he has lost over 15 kg in weight.

But his physical appearance was not as shocking as his mental deterioration. When asked to give his name and date of birth, he struggled visibly over several seconds to recall both. I will come to the important content of his statement at the end of proceedings in due course, but his difficulty in making it was very evident; it was a real struggle for him to articulate the words and focus his train of thought.

Until yesterday I had always been quietly sceptical of those who claimed that Julian’s treatment amounted to torture – even of Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture – and sceptical of those who suggested he may be subject to debilitating drug treatments. But having attended the trials in Uzbekistan of several victims of extreme torture, and having worked with survivors from Sierra Leone and elsewhere, I can tell you that yesterday changed my mind entirely and Julian exhibited exactly the symptoms of a torture victim brought blinking into the light, particularly in terms of disorientation, confusion, and the real struggle to assert free will through the fog of learned helplessness.

I had been even more sceptical of those who claimed, as a senior member of his legal team did to me on Sunday night, that they were worried that Julian might not live to the end of the extradition process. I now find myself not only believing it, but haunted by the thought. Everybody in that court yesterday saw that one of the greatest journalists and most important dissidents of our times is being tortured to death by the state, before our eyes. To see my friend, the most articulate man, the fastest thinker, I have ever known, reduced to that shambling and incoherent wreck, was unbearable. Yet the agents of the state, particularly the callous magistrate Vanessa Baraitser, were not just prepared but eager to be a part of this bloodsport. She actually told him that if he were incapable of following proceedings, then his lawyers could explain what had happened to him later. The question of why a man who, by the very charges against him, was acknowledged to be highly intelligent and competent, had been reduced by the state to somebody incapable of following court proceedings, gave her not a millisecond of concern.

The charge against Julian is very specific; conspiring with Chelsea Manning to publish the Iraq War logs, the Afghanistan war logs and the State Department cables. The charges are nothing to do with Sweden, nothing to do with sex, and nothing to do with the 2016 US election; a simple clarification the mainstream media appears incapable of understanding.

The purpose of yesterday’s hearing was case management; to determine the timetable for the extradition proceedings. The key points at issue were that Julian’s defence was requesting more time to prepare their evidence; and arguing that political offences were specifically excluded from the extradition treaty. There should, they argued, therefore be a preliminary hearing to determine whether the extradition treaty applied at all.

The reasons given by Assange’s defence 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, 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 defence.

Furthermore, the defence argued, they were in touch with the Spanish courts about a very important and relevant legal case in Madrid which would provide vital evidence. It showed that the CIA had been directly ordering spying on Julian in the Embassy through a Spanish company, UC Global, contracted to provide security there. Crucially this included spying on privileged conversations between Assange and his lawyers discussing his defence against these extradition proceedings, which had been in train in the USA since 2010. In any normal process, that fact would in itself be sufficient to have the extradition proceedings dismissed. Incidentally I learnt on Sunday that the Spanish material produced in court, which had been commissioned by the CIA, specifically includes high resolution video coverage of Julian and I discussing various matters.

The evidence to the Spanish court also included a CIA plot to kidnap Assange, which went to the US authorities’ attitude to lawfulness in his case and the treatment he might expect in the United States. Julian’s team explained that the Spanish legal process was happening now and the evidence from it would be extremely important, but it might not be finished and thus the evidence not fully validated and available in time for the current proposed timetable for the Assange extradition hearings.

For the prosecution, James Lewis QC stated that the government strongly opposed any delay being given for the defence to prepare, and strongly opposed any separate consideration of the question of whether the charge was a political offence excluded by the extradition treaty. Baraitser took her cue from Lewis and stated categorically that the date for the extradition hearing, 25 February, could not be changed. She was open to changes in dates for submission of evidence and responses before this, and called a ten minute recess for the prosecution and defence to agree these steps.

What happened next was very instructive. There were five representatives of the US government present (initially three, and two more arrived in the course of the hearing), seated at desks behind the lawyers in court. The prosecution lawyers immediately went into huddle with the US representatives, then went outside the courtroom with them, to decide how to respond on the dates.

After the recess the defence team stated they could not, in their professional opinion, adequately prepare if the hearing date were kept to February, but within Baraitser’s instruction to do so they nevertheless outlined a proposed timetable on delivery of evidence. In responding to this, Lewis’ junior counsel scurried to the back of the court to consult the Americans again while Lewis actually told the judge he was “taking instructions from those behind”. It is important to note that as he said this, it was not the UK Attorney-General’s office who were being consulted but the US Embassy. Lewis received his American instructions and agreed that the defence might have two months to prepare their evidence (they had said they needed an absolute minimum of three) but the February hearing date may not be moved. Baraitser gave a ruling agreeing with everything Lewis had said.

At this stage it was unclear why we were sitting through this farce. The US government was dictating its instructions to Lewis, who was relaying those instructions to Baraitser, who was ruling them as her legal decision. The charade might as well have been cut and the US government simply sat on the bench to control the whole process. Nobody could sit there and believe they were in any part of a genuine legal process or that Baraitser was giving a moment’s consideration to the arguments of the defence. Her facial expressions on the few occasions she looked at the defence ranged from contempt through boredom to sarcasm. When she looked at Lewis she was attentive, open and warm.

The extradition is plainly being rushed through in accordance with a Washington dictated timetable. Apart from a desire to pre-empt the Spanish court providing evidence on CIA activity in sabotaging the defence, what makes the February date so important to the USA? I would welcome any thoughts.

Baraitser dismissed the defence’s request for a separate prior hearing to consider whether the extradition treaty applied at all, without bothering to give any reason why (possibly she had not properly memorised what Lewis had been instructing her to agree with). Yet this is Article 4 of the UK/US Extradition Treaty 2007 in full:

On the face of it, what Assange is accused of is the very definition of a political offence – if this is not, then what is? It is not covered by any of the exceptions from that listed. There is every reason to consider whether this charge is excluded by the extradition treaty, and to do so before the long and very costly process of considering all the evidence should the treaty apply. But Baraitser simply dismissed the argument out of hand.

Just in case anybody was left in any doubt as to what was happening here, Lewis then stood up and suggested that the defence should not be allowed to waste the court’s time with a lot of arguments. All arguments for the substantive hearing should be given in writing in advance and a “guillotine should be applied” (his exact words) to arguments and witnesses in court, perhaps of five hours for the defence. The defence had suggested they would need more than the scheduled five days to present their case. Lewis countered that the entire hearing should be over in two days. Baraitser said this was not procedurally the correct moment to agree to this but she will consider it once she had received the evidence bundles.

(SPOILER: Baraitser is going to do as Lewis instructs and cut the substantive hearing short).

Baraitser then capped it all by saying the February hearing will be held, not at the comparatively open and accessible Westminster Magistrates Court where we were, but at Belmarsh Magistrates Court, the grim high security facility used for preliminary legal processing of terrorists, attached to the maximum security prison where Assange is being held. There are only six seats for the public in even the largest court at Belmarsh, and the object is plainly to evade public scrutiny and make sure that Baraitser is not exposed in public again to a genuine account of her proceedings, like this one you are reading. I will probably be unable to get in to the substantive hearing at Belmarsh.

Plainly the authorities were disconcerted by the hundreds of good people who had turned up to support Julian. They hope that far fewer will get to the much less accessible Belmarsh. I am fairly certain (and recall I had a long career as a diplomat) that the two extra American government officials who arrived halfway through proceedings were armed security personnel, brought in because of alarm at the number of protestors around a hearing in which were present senior US officials. The move to Belmarsh may be an American initiative.

Assange’s defence team objected strenuously to the move to Belmarsh, in particular on the grounds that there are no conference rooms available there to consult with their client and they have very inadequate access to him in the jail. Baraitser dismissed their objection offhand and with a very definite smirk.

Finally, Baraitser turned to Julian and ordered him to stand, and asked him if he had understood the proceedings. He replied in the negative, said that he could not think, and gave every appearance of disorientation. Then he seemed to find an inner strength, drew himself up a little, and said:

I do not understand how this process is equitable. This superpower had 10 years to prepare for this case and I can’t even access my writings. It is very difficult, where I am, to do anything. These people have unlimited resources.

The effort then seemed to become too much, his voice dropped and he became increasingly confused and incoherent. He spoke of whistleblowers and publishers being labeled enemies of the people, then spoke about his children’s DNA being stolen and of being spied on in his meetings with his psychologist. I am not suggesting at all that Julian was wrong about these points, but he could not properly frame nor articulate them. He was plainly not himself, very ill and it was just horribly painful to watch. Baraitser showed neither sympathy nor the least concern. She tartly observed that if he could not understand what had happened, his lawyers could explain it to him, and she swept out of court.

The whole experience was profoundly upsetting. It was very plain that there was no genuine process of legal consideration happening here. What we had was a naked demonstration of the power of the state, and a naked dictation of proceedings by the Americans. Julian was in a box behind bulletproof glass, and I and the thirty odd other members of the public who had squeezed in were in a different box behind more bulletproof glass. I do not know if he could see me or his other friends in the court, or if he was capable of recognising anybody. He gave no indication that he did.

In Belmarsh he is kept in complete isolation for 23 hours a day. He is permitted 45 minutes exercise. If he has to be moved, they clear the corridors before he walks down them and they lock all cell doors to ensure he has no contact with any other prisoner outside the short and strictly supervised exercise period. There is no possible justification for this inhuman regime, used on major terrorists, being imposed on a publisher who is a remand prisoner.

I have been both cataloguing and protesting for years the increasingly authoritarian powers of the UK state, but that the most gross abuse could be so open and undisguised is still a shock. The campaign of demonisation and dehumanisation against Julian, based on government and media lie after government and media lie, has led to a situation where he can be slowly killed in public sight, and arraigned on a charge of publishing the truth about government wrongdoing, while receiving no assistance from “liberal” society.

Unless Julian is released shortly he will be destroyed. If the state can do this, then who is next?

She Deserves Our Support: Betty McCollum Wants US to Stop Subsidizing Torture of Palestinian Children

In December 2018, 17-year-old Palestinian teen, Ayham Sabah, was sentenced by an Israeli military court to 35 years in prison for his alleged role in a stabbing attack targeting an Israeli soldier in an illegal Jewish settlement in the West Bank.

Sabah was only 14 years old when the alleged attack took place.

Another alleged attacker, Omar al-Rimawi, also 14, was reportedly shot by undercover Israeli forces in the Shufat refugee camp, in occupied East Jerusalem. He later succumbed to his wounds.

Although the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a “child” as “every human being below the age of eighteen years”, Israel chooses not to abide by that definition. In Israel, there are two kinds of children: Israeli children who are 18 years old or younger, and Palestinians children, 16 years and younger.

In Sabah’s case, he was detained for years to ensure that he was tried as an “adult” per Israel’s skewed legal standards.

According to research conducted by the Israeli rights group, B’Tselem, by the end of August 2019, 185 Palestinian children, including two younger than 14 years old were held in various Israeli prisons as “security detainees and prisoners.”

Thousands of Palestinian children are constantly being rotated through the Israeli prison system, often accused of “security” offenses, which include taking part in anti-Israeli occupation protests and rallies in the West Bank. The Palestinian Prisoner’s Association estimates that at least 6,000 Palestinian children have been detained in Israeli prisons since 2015.

In a statement issued last April, the Association, revealed that “98 percent of the children held had been subjected to psychological and/or physical abuse while in Israeli custody” and that many of them were detained “after first being shot and wounded by Israeli troops.”

While Gazan children are the ones most likely to lose their lives or get shot by the Israeli army, the children of occupied East Jerusalem are “the most targeted” by Israeli troops in terms of detention or prolonged imprisonment.

In 2016, the US and Israeli governments signed a 10-year Memorandum of Understanding, whereby, the US “pledges” to grant Israel $38 billion in military aid. The previous agreement, which concluded in 2018, gave Israel over $3 billion per year. Most of the money went to finance Israeli wars and security for illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank. A large portion of that money was, and still is, allocated to subsidize the Israeli prison system and military courts located in occupied Palestine – the kind that regularly detain and torture Palestinian children.

Aside from the US government, which has blindly supported Israel’s ongoing violations of international law, many governments and rights groups around the world have constantly highlighted Israel’s criminally reprehensible treatment of Palestinian children.

In a written submission by Human Rights Watch to the Committee on the Rights of the Child on the State of Palestine last March, the group reported that “Palestinian children aged between 12 and 17 years from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, continue to be detained and arrested by Israeli forces.”

“Israeli security forces routinely interrogate children without a guardian or lawyer present, use unnecessary force against children during arrest, which often takes place in the middle of the night, and physically abuse them in custody,” HRW reported.

While the US government, lawmakers and media often turn a blind eye to such violations, Congresswoman Betty McCollum does not. The representative for Minnesota’s 4th congressional district has taken a stand against the prevailing norm in American politics, arguing that Israel must respect the rights of Palestinian children, and that the US government should not be funding Israel’s violations of human rights.

On April 30, McCollum introduced House resolution H.R. 2407 – “Promoting Human Rights for Palestinian Children Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act”.

“I am introducing legislation to protect children from abuse, violence, psychological trauma, and torture,” she said in her statement to the Congress.

“The legislation I am introducing is expressly intended to end U.S. support and funding for Israel’s systematic military detention, interrogation, abuse, torture, and prosecution of Palestinian children.”

By introducing H.R. 2407, McCollum has broken several major taboos in the US government. She unapologetically characterizes Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights with all the correct terms – “torture”, “abuse”, and so on… Moreover, she calls for conditioning US military support for Israel on the latter’s respect for human rights.

As of November 17, H.R. 2407 has acquired 22 co-sponsors, with Rep. Mark DeSaulnier being the last Congress member to join the list.

This is not the first time that McCollum has taken such brave initiatives. In November 2017, she introduced the “Promoting Human Rights by Ending Israeli Military Detention of Palestinian Children Act” (H.R. 4391). Then, she pushed the bill with the same vigor and moral clarity as today’s campaign.

The 2017 bill was not enacted in the previous Congress. McCollum is hoping to change that this time around, and there are good reasons to believe that H.R. 2407 could succeed.

One public opinion poll after another points to a shift in US perception of Israel, especially among Democrats and even US Jewish voters.

Eager to exploit the political chasm, US President Donald Trump accused Jewish Democrats who don’t support Israel of being “disloyal”.

“The Democrats have gone very far away from Israel,” Trump said last August. “In my opinion, you vote for a Democrat, you’re being very disloyal to Jewish people and very disloyal to Israel.”

In fact, it seems that an increasing number of American voters are now linking their perception of Israel to their perception of their own polarizing President and his relationship with the equally polarizing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The above reality is now widening the margins of criticism of Israel, whether in the US Congress, media, or other facets of American life which have historically stood on the side of Israel despite the latter’s dismal human rights record.

While one hopes that McCollum’s congressional bill pays dividends in the service of human rights in Palestine and Israel, one hopes equally that the current shift in American political perceptions continues unhindered.

Administrative Torture: Free Heba al-Labadi, a Jordanian Citizen in Israeli Prison

On August 20, Heba Ahmed al-Labadi fell into the dark hole of the Israeli legal system, joining 413 Palestinian prisoners who are currently held in so-called administrative detention.

On September 26, Heba and seven other prisoners declared a hunger strike to protest their unlawful detention and horrific conditions in Israeli prisons. Among the prisoners is Ahmed Ghannam, 42, from the village of Dura, near Hebron, who launched his hunger strike on July 14.

Administrative detention is Israel’s go-to legal proceeding when it simply wants to mute the voices of Palestinian political activists, but lacks any concrete evidence that can be presented in an open, military court.

Not that Israel’s military courts are an example of fairness and transparency. Indeed, when it comes to Palestinians, the entire Israeli judicial system is skewed. But administrative detention is a whole new level of injustice.

The current practice of administrative detention dates back to the 1945 Defense (Emergency) Regulations issued by the colonial British authorities in Palestine to quell Palestinian political dissent. Israel amended the regulations in 1979, renaming them to the Israeli Law on Authority in States of Emergency. The revised law was used to indefinitely incarcerate thousands of Palestinian political activists during the Palestinian Uprising of 1987. On any given day, there are hundreds of Palestinians who are held under the unlawful practice.

The procedure denies the detainees any due process, and fails to produce an iota of evidence to as why the prisoner – who is often subjected to severe and relentless torture – is being held in the first place.

Heba, a Jordanian citizen, was detained at the al-Karameh crossing (Allenby Bridge) on her way from Jordan to the West Bank to attend a wedding in the Palestinian city of Nablus.

According to the Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network Samidoun, Heba was first held at the Israeli intelligence detention center in Petah Tikva, where she was physically abused and tortured.

Torture in Israel was permissible for many years. In 1999, the Israeli Supreme Court banned torture. However, in 2019, the court explicitly clarified that “interrogational torture is lawful in certain circumstances in Israel’s legal system”. Either way, little has changed in practice before or after the Israeli court’s “clarification”.

Of the dozens of Palestinian and Arab prisoners I interviewed in recent months for a soon-to-be published volume on the history of the Palestinian prison experience, every single one of them underwent a prolonged process of torture during the initial interrogation, that often extended for months. If their experiences differed, it was only in the extent and duration of the torture. This applies to administrative detainees as much as it applies to so-called “security prisoners”.

Wafa Samir Ibrahim al-Bis, a Palestinian woman from Jablaiya refugee camp in Gaza, told me about the years she was held in Israeli jails. “I was tortured for years inside the Ramleh prison’s infamous ‘cell nine’, a torture chamber they designated for people like me,” she said.

“I was hanged from the ceiling and beaten. They put a black bag on my head as they beat and interrogated me for many hours and days. They released dogs and mice in my cell. I couldn’t sleep for days at a time. They stripped me naked and left me like that for days on end. They didn’t allow me to meet with a lawyer or even receive visits from the Red Cross.”

Heba is now lost in that very system, one that has no remorse and faces no accountability, neither in Israel itself, nor to international institutions whose duty is to challenge this kind of flagrant violation of humanitarian laws.

While Israel’s mistreatment of all Palestinian prisoners applies equally regardless of faction, ideology or age, the gender of the prisoner matters insofar as the type of torture or humiliation used. Many of the female prisoners I spoke with explained how the type of mistreatment they experienced in Israeli prisons seemed often to involve sexual degradation and abuse. One involves having female prisoners strip naked before Israeli male interrogators and remaining in that position during the entire duration of the torturous interrogation, that may last hours.

Khadija Khweis, from the town of Al-Tour, adjacent to the Old City of Occupied East Jerusalem, was imprisoned by Israel 18 times, for a period ranging from several days to several weeks. She told me that “on the first day of my arrival at prison, the guards stripped me completely naked”.

“They searched me in ways so degrading, I cannot even write them down. All I can say is that they intentionally tried to deprive me of the slightest degree of human dignity. This practice, of stripping and of degrading body searches, would be repeated every time I was taken out of my cell and brought back.”

Heba and all Palestinian prisoners experience humiliation and abuse on a daily basis. Their stories should not be reduced to an occasional news item or a social media post, but should become the raison d’être of all solidarity efforts aimed at exposing Israel, its fraudulent judicial system and Kangaroo courts.

The struggle of Palestinian prisoners epitomizes the struggle of all Palestinians. Their imprisonment is a stark representation of the collective imprisonment of the Palestinian people – those living under occupation and apartheid in the West Bank and those under occupation and siege in Gaza.

Israel should be held accountable for all of this. Rights groups and the international community should pressure Israel to release Heba al-Labadi and all of her comrades, unlawfully held in Israeli prisons.