Assange rally, 4 Feb 2020. Photo: Shabbir Lakha Assange rally, 4 Feb 2020. Photo: Shabbir Lakha

On February 4th a large crowd attended London’s Royal National Hotel for a public rally in support of Julian Assange, reports Peter Bird

The charges Assange faces are considered a major threat to press freedom. After being forcibly removed from the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he previously had asylum, Assange is now in Belmarsh, a high security prison in London, where he faces extradition to the United States and imprisonment for the rest of his life. Until recently he was held in solitary confinement.

The event began with Jen Robinson, from Assange’s legal team, and Kristinn Hrafnsson, Editor–in- chief of Wikileaks, addressing the issue of whether what Assange did was journalism, rather than merely disseminating information gained from cybercrime. Hrafnsson pointed out that Assange is a respected multi-award winning journalist, while Robinson spoke of the need to recognise his work as journalism-protected, in the United States, under the first amendment. She mentioned the case of Glenn Greenwald, who has recently been arrested in Brazil, and the fear that other governments will use the precedent of Assange’s prosecution to clamp down on critical journalism.

The speakers that addressed the audience subsequently emphatically agreed that Assange was being prosecuted by authorities in Britain and the US due to them conflating national security with political embarrassment. Richard Burgon, Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, and a candidate for deputy leadership of the Labour Party, said that, but for Assange and Wikileaks, truth would not have been made public: “Truth is often the first casualty of War”, he said; “the world would not have known the injustices carried out in our name.” He described, “The collateral murder of innocent people gunned down.” The disclosure of diplomatic cables exposing US actions in Afghanistan and Iraq represented, he said, “the finest traditions of journalism”.

John McDonnell, Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, called what Assange did, “a classic case of whistle-blowing to expose atrocious brutality perpetrated in our names.” He said he had voted, in parliament, against the extradition treaty, foreseeing the way in which it may be used.

The presentation made by Nils Melzer, UN Special Rapporteur, received a very warm response from the audience. He gave account of visiting Assange with two independent medical experts, who examined him and concluded that he was a victim of psychological torture, “aimed at destroying the personality of the subject”. Melzer was extremely surprised when the British Government declined to engage with him over the findings.

Tariq Ali put what is happing in the wider context of the US government wishing to protect their hegemony in the world through attack and war in other countries. He said that the US had been worried ever since their actions in Vietnam received critical media coverage. He also referred to the US missile hit on the offices of Al Jazeera television in the early stages of the so-called war on terror. He was clear that alternative media outlets, such as Wikileaks, were vital.

John Rees, who organised the event, and Kristinn Hrafnsson, both paid tribute to the campaign actions without which Assange would not have got out of solitary confinement. This included representations by other prisoners within Belmarsh. Hrafnsson said that the inmates of Belmarsh demonstrated more humanity than those that incarcerated them.

There is a march, featuring Roger Waters, in support of Julian Assange from Australia House to Parliament Square on Saturday February 22nd. The extradition court hearing starts on February 24th. Protest from 9.30am in front of Belmarsh Prison, 4 Belmarsh Road, SE28 0HA.