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There are moments in life from which one longs to wake up as if from a nightmare. This is how I felt when I got increasingly involved in the case of Julian Assange, layer by layer, delving deeper and deeper into a dark world I would never have thought possible. As UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, I am mandated to investigate suspected cases of torture and to demand accountability from the involved states. In the case of Julian Assange, however, I had to be approached twice before I reacted. I thought to myself: A suspected rapist, hacker, and Russian spy evading justice in the Ecuadorian embassy claims to be a victim of torture? After initial scepticism, however, I was to discover an entirely different truth.
From fighter for transparency to outcast
If Julian Assange’s beliefs were to be reduced to a slogan, it would probably be: “Privacy for citizens – but transparency for governments!” Through his Wikileaks platform, he has published hundreds of thousands of secret documents, leaked to him by others, about misconduct by states and corporations. The revelations have gone around the world: They concerned torture in Guantanamo, civilian victims in Afghanistan, and war crimes in Iraq, gruesomely culminating in a video entitled “Collateral Murder”. We can observe US soldiers massacring more than a dozen people from a helicopter in Baghdad, among them two Reuters journalists. When a minibus stops to rescue the injured, the rescuer, too, is deliberately murdered. His two children survive, badly injured. The soldiers cheer each other on, making flippant remarks as if the whole thing were a video game. The war crime is seamlessly documented, including its premeditation, but none of those responsible has ever been held to account. The US military claims to have found no wrongdoing. An odyssey begins for Julian Assange.
In the Assange case, the more puzzle pieces one assembles, the harder it becomes to escape the impression of a gangster-like conspiracy. Assange’s uncompromising dissemination of unpleasant truths soon antagonized virtually the entire establishment worldwide, and provoked efforts at silencing him. In 2012, Wikileaks published an internal email exchange from Stratfor, a private US security company which has been described as the “shadow CIA”.1 Today, this correspondence reads like the script for what has been going before our eyes on ever since. In particular, it was recommended that Assange be moved “from country to country to face various charges for the next 25 years” and, in doing so, to completely discredit him in the eyes of the public. This the involved states have successfully achieved, and I too initially succumbed to their propaganda. Still candidate for Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” in 2010, support for Julian Assange crumbled rapidly after rape allegations had been made against him. Suddenly, Assange had gone from a freedom fighter to an outcast, whose defence had become politically incorrect.
State-sponsored mobbing begins…
At the end of July 2010, Wikileaks, together with renowned papers such as the New York Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel, publishes explosive documents on the war in Afghanistan, the so-called “Afghan War Diary”. Less than a month later, two women show up at the Swedish police, an event that is to become the beginning of a decade marked by severe state-sponsored arbitrariness and persecution. One of the women claims to have had consensual, but unprotected, sex with Assange and is worried about a possible HIV infection.
With the assistance of the police, she hopes to get Assange to have a test. When the police try to turn her account into a suspicion of rape, she interrupts her interview and goes home without signing the protocol. In a text message to a friend, she writes that she didn’t want to accuse Assange of anything, but that the police evidently wanted to “get their hands on him” (Picture 1). Only hours later, however, newspapers already report Assange to be under investigation for double rape. The second woman, however, is not even being questioned until the following day. Moreover, Swedish law prohibits to publish the names of the suspect or victims during the investigation of sexual offences.
The sheer number of due process violations that accumulate in the course of the following few weeks is downright grotesque: The first prosecutor closes the preliminary rape investigation stating that she considered the woman’s statement to be credible, but that “the conduct alleged by her disclosed no crime at all” (Picture 2). The Swedish police then revises the transcript of the woman’s statement without conducting a new interview and, on this basis, the investigation is reopened by another prosecutor. After that, Assange remains in Sweden for another full three weeks, repeatedly requesting that the prosecutor allow him to respond to the allegations made against him. His requests are systematically denied, for reasons such as scheduling difficulties or sick leave of the responsible police officer.
Before Assange finally leaves the country, he requests and obtains the prosecutor’s authorization to do so. Regardless, on the very day of his departure, the prosecutor issues an arrest warrant for attempted escape. Meanwhile, secret proceedings are initiated against Assange in the United States. From London, Assange repeatedly contacts the Swedish Prosecution Service, offering to come to Sweden for questioning on the condition that he would not be extradited to the U.S. (Picture 3 and 4).
Contrary to common international practice, these offers are systematically refused by Sweden. Assange’s now growing scepticism is entirely justified: A few years earlier, the Swedish Security Police had handed over two registered asylum seekers to the CIA, without any form of due process. They ended up being tortured in Egypt.2
…and degrades into a rigged game.
When the United Kingdom insists to extradite him to Sweden, Assange requests – and receives – diplomatic asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. There, he is surveilled by a Spanish security company, with microphones even in the ladies› room, reportedly at the behest of the CIA. All his conversations are systematically tapped and recorded – with confidants, friends, lawyers, and even doctors. Ecuador, in the face of severe economic pressure, ends up sacrificing Assange for an IMF loan of $4.2 billion: After a change of power in Ecuador and almost seven years of embassy asylum, the new president suspends the Ecuadorian citizenship granted to Assange by his predecessor and revokes his asylum status – in both cases without any due process of law.
The British police arrests him and, on the same day, a judge convicts him of having violated British bail conditions by fleeing to the Ecuadorian embassy. Although the fact of having received diplomatic asylum should automatically be regarded as exculpatory, the judge finds it difficult to imagine a more serious case of bail violation. While this offence ordinarily entails a fine or a few days› jail time at most, in Assange’s case the judge finds it worthy of 50 weeks› imprisonment.
The circumstances of this conviction alone are absurd. Imagine: After almost seven years, Assange is forcibly dragged out of the embassy and, despite his state of agitation, is brought before the judge the very same day, is given less than 15 minutes to talk to his lawyer, and is sentenced in a 15-minute hearing by a judge who baselessly insults him as a “narcissist” and refuses to even consider an objection formally raised by the defence lawyer concerning a conflict of interest affecting an involved judge – namely that, in 35 cases, Wikileaks had published documents on questionable transactions made by her husband.
The longer one investigates this case, and the more documents one reviews, the more difficult it gets to escape the impression of a frame-up: The combined power of four states targeting a single individual. The British Crown Prosecution Service urged the Swedish prosecutor not to close the case: “Don’t you dare get cold feet!!” Following blunt pressure from the US House of Representatives in a letter dated 16 October 2018 (“it will be very difficult for the United States to advance our bilateral relationship until Mr. Assange is handed over to the proper authorities”), Ecuador finally allowed the British authorities to apprehend Assange. (Picture 5)
The United States, in turn, demand Assange’s extradition from the United Kingdom, threatening him with 175 years imprisonment, 170 of which are for “espionage” under a 1917 law that has never been used against a publisher before.
Thus, this frontal assault on the rule of law simultaneously risks to turn into a death sentence for press freedom. For once this precedent has been established, any journalist, publisher, or intellectual worldwide could theoretically be extradited to the United States simply for publishing information that the US government prefers to keep secret – and other powerful states will not hesitate to follow the American example. Once the exposure of abuse has become a crime, press freedom will have been abolished, the impunity of the powerful sanctioned, and the all-too familiar jinn of the “Unrechtsstaat” once again released from its bottle.
Psychological torture in a high-security prison
As an expert in international law and UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, I am mandated to investigate a case objectively, to check the facts, and to investigate any suspicion of torture. In urgent cases, I can intervene directly with the Foreign Minister of any UN member state within 24 hours. Given that most governments prefer their conduct to be perceived as legitimate, my interventions and questions are usually addressed in detail, at least in the case of so-called “mature democracies”.
But in the Assange case, the constitutional state seems to have fallen into some sort of shock-paralysis. Assange is held along with violent offenders in London’s Belmarsh Prison, a high security facility. He has spent most of his detention in almost complete isolation, confined 22 to 23 hours a day in a solitary cell, without any contact with other inmates, and with extremely limited access to lawyers and trial-related documents.
When his lawyers first requested my official intervention, I declined, because I had been poisoned by the same prejudices against Assange as the general public. And so I took action only once I had received a second request, along with convincing evidence. I finally visited Assange in May 2019, accompanied by two doctors specialized in the investigation of torture victims: psychiatrist Dr. Pau Pérez-Sales and forensic expert Professor Duarte Nuno Vieira, who have been working with torture victims for decades. Both are world-renowned experts and authors of relevant works and have no interest whatsoever in risking their credibility with daring theories.
In our private conversation, Assange immediately reminded me of political prisoners I had visited in solitary confinement all over the world. Likewise, the two doctors, based on separate medical examinations, both came to the same conclusion: Julian Assange showed typical signs of prolonged psychological torture. Psychological torture is just as harmful as physical torture, but it is particularly pernicious because it often is not perceived as torture from the outside. In reality, it aims directly at the destruction of the victim’s identity and mental resilience, often with irreparable long-term damage.
Typical signs of long-term psychological torture include measurable cognitive and neurological impairments, leaps and gaps in thought processes, permanent anxiety, restlessness, and lack of concentration and coordination. While Assange’s precise diagnosis remains subject to medical confidentiality, psychological torture is best described as a constant state of panic: Racing thoughts are unable to find a point of reference and result in anxiety and insomnia, as well as emotions of total arbitrariness, loss of control, and helplessness. Ultimately, the victim is mentally and emotionally broken, sinks into apathy – so-called «learned helplessness» – or may even commit suicide out of desperation.
In essence, the aim of all torture is the same: to break the will of the victim and to subject it to the will of the torturer. However, its purpose is not always a forced confession, but may also be to intimidate others, such as in the case of Assange. The purpose of his ill-treatment is to demonstrate to the whole world in slow motion what awaits those who expose the dirty secrets of powerful state actors. Assange is mocked, ridiculed and abused, and his fundamental rights are being trampled upon, whereas the crimes he exposed remain unpunished. The message is clear: Anyone who dares to seriously endanger the privileges of the powerful will be publicly disenfranchised, shamed, and tortured to death – just like in the European Middle Ages.
A modern show trial
The case of Julian Assange is nothing else than a modern show trial featuring politically motivated prosecutors, denial of justice, manipulated evidence, biased judges, unlawful surveillance, denial of defence rights, and abusive prison conditions. What sounds like a textbook example of dictatorial arbitrariness is in fact an actual precedent happening in the middle of Europe, the birthplace of human rights.
I have no illusions whatsoever as to the fairness of the trial awaiting Assange in the United States. Like any other espionage defendant, he would be tried in Alexandria, Virginia, where the majority of the population is employed by the secret services, the defence department, and arms companies, thus effectively ensuring the jury’s bias in favour of the prosecution. These proceedings are always conducted by the same judge, behind closed doors and based on secret evidence. No one has ever been acquitted, and draconian sanctions are assured to anyone refusing to confess. If extradited to the US, Assange faces an almost absurd sanction of 175 years in prison – not for a repulsive violent offence, but solely for having published evidence for serious crimes committed by the U.S. government. In contrast, the war crimes exposed by Wikileaks remain unpunished, including systematic torture and the killing of civilians, wounded persons and prisoners.
What frightens me is the nonchalance and self-righteousness with which states such as Sweden and the United Kingdom react to my reports and flatly refuse to answer my questions, along with the indifference with which the Assange case has long been passed over in public opinion, in the press, and in politics.
In reality, this case reveals systemic dysfunctions that make our Western constitutional states look like “fair-weather democracies”, where the protection of the law can be relied upon only as long as the machinations of the powerful are not fundamentally questioned. In all four states involved – Sweden, Great Britain, the USA and Ecuador – the legal system for ten years has proven to be incapable of preventing or correcting serious state-sponsored abuse and to offer Julian Assange even the semblance of a fair trial. The Assange case must finally be recognised for what it is: a totalitarian attack on the rule of law and press freedom, without which a healthy democracy is not possible. If we do not soon want to wake up in a worldwide dictatorship, we had better rub the sleep from our eyes!
The documents referred to in the article can be found here in full text:
All documents to print out here:
These are the cases: UN Committee against Torture, Agiza v. Sweden, CAT/C/34/D/233/2003, (tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CAT%2FC%2F34%2FD%2F233%2F2003&Lang=en) and UN Human Rights Committee, Alzery v. Sweden, CCPR/C/88/D/1416/2005 (tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CCPR%2FC%2F88%2FD%2F1416%2F2005&Lang=en). ↩