John Rees reports on a remarkable day in court
As I watched Judge Vanessa Baraitser give her verdict in the Assange extradition case at the Old Bailey this morning a deep depression settled over me. I’ve heard every minute of the Assange case from the moment it started in Belmarsh in February last year, through three weeks in September at the Old Bailey, to this 45 minute summary of the verdict.
For 40 minutes of that three-quarters of an hour the judge rejected every defence argument against extradition. Journalists are allowed to tweet court proceedings as they happen, thanks to a ruling in an earlier Assange hearing. Here are my tweets in real time as I reported the judgement.
10.12: Julian #Assange takes his seat in court
10.14: Judge in court but not visible to journalists watching video link
10.16: Judge rejects political offences defence because extradition treaty isn’t part of UK law.
10.19: Judge says there are U.K. offences comparable to those #Assange is charged with in the US.
10.20: Judge says #Assange did help Manning download material. Judge just going along with prosecutors case.
10.25: No public interest defence says judge in #Assange case.
10.26: Judge is just repeating the US case, including its most dubious claims, in #Assange case.
10.33: Judge refuses to accept that Assange is being extradited for his political views.
10.34: Judge refuses to take Trump’s hostility to #Assange seriously.
10.35: Judge refuses to take notice of Spanish case because that case is still in process.
10.36: Judge now excusing CIA spying on #Assange.
10.37: Judge now defending Ecuadorean withdrawal of asylum.
10.38: This is an outrageously biased and unbalanced judgement.
10.41: Judge rejects view that US jury would be biased because it’s drawn from pool with high proportion of state department, Pentagon, and CIA employees.
10.47: Judge confident that the US judicial system will uphold #Assange’s rights despite the fact that he is a foreign citizen.
10.51: ‘This court trusts a US court will uphold #Assange’s civil liberties’ says Judge. Judge might as well be reading aloud from the Ladybird book of the US court system.
And then something extraordinary happened:
10.57: Judge accepts #Assange suffers from depression. Accepts he could be held under SAMs [special administrative measures] in US (ie in solitary). Would increase suicidal tendencies.
10.59: Judge recognises threat of suicide. Extradition is refused. Assange freed by judge. US appealing.
In the final few moments of the verdict the judge ruled that conditions in the US’s supermax prisons are simply too brutal for Julian Assange to be incarcerated without serious risk that he would take his own life. The prisons are, she accepted, ‘oppressive’.
So, if the US government wishes to know why it lost this extradition hearing, and lost it in the court of a judge that is fundamentally in agreement with their case in every particular, then it boils down to this: the US prison system is too inhumane, to damaging to those in its care, for a human being to avoid thoughts of self-harm or even suicide.
If the US lawyers insist on going ahead with appealing to a higher court to try and enforce their extradition request it will not be Julian Assange who is on trial. It will be the US prison system. We have every reason to campaign to ensure that they lose this battle for a second time.
The verdict is a triumph for Assange, his family, his lawyers, and his supporters.
But it leaves many questions unanswered. Most immediately is the question of bail. Assange should already be walking the streets as a free man. He faces no charges and his extradition has been refused by the only court it is before.
But the judge sent him back to the hell of Belmarsh (no better than a US supermax) pending yet another hearing on Wednesday. There is no reason, other than the convenience of the US prosecutors, why he remains in jail. He should be freed immediately.
But beyond that we should return to the deeply problematic points in the judgement.
The judge actually went beyond the claims of the US prosecutors when she said that the fact that the extradition treaty was not fully written into UK law means that there is, intentionally, no defence for political dissidents in the UK’s extradition arrangements. This cannot be allowed to stand, and it is not how MPs, both Labour and Tory, remember the assurances given by the Blair government when the current treaty was adopted.
Nor should we accept for a second the judges claims that there is no public interest defence for whistleblowers and journalists. Or her claim that those being persecuted for their political opinions should not enjoy the protection of the law.
All these glaring contradictions with accepted norms are a product of the judge's decision to reject extradition on narrow grounds while accepting the overwhelming majority of the prosecution case.
No doubt this approach appeals to the political establishment. Ruling against Assange on questions of journalistic freedom, but banishing the political embarrassment of his case on the basis that he is too weak to endure the US prison system is an expedient way out of the mess that they have created.
It’s exactly the kind of political fix that has kept the old and cunning English establishment in power for centuries. Other examples might be the transportation of the Tollpuddle martyrs, and their return before the full span of punishment was complete under public pressure. Or the sudden intervention of the little known ‘official solicitor’ which freed the Pentonville dockers in 1972, again under the threat of mass campaigning and strike action.
And therein lies the lesson.
Without constant public campaigning the pressure simply would not have existed that made this decision necessary. The way to remedy its partial and inadequate nature is more of the same.
An earlier version of this article appeared in Tribune magazine.
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.
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