Assange deserves clemency. And we have the right to know the truth

«If Assange is convicted under the provisions of the antique US Espionage Act, it will jeopardise any journalist who is offered classified documents», adverts IFJ President Dominique Pradalié. «He is an Australian who published in Europe. His conviction under American law in an US court, would extend US law worldwide.»

Feb 20, 2024 - 19:20

By Dominique Pradalié

I last saw Julian Assange a little before Christmas. We were in the visiting room at HMP Belmarsh, surrounded by 30 or so other inmates, sitting at tables and chairs that are secured to the floor. Overhead strip lights provided the only illumination. The weight on Assange’s shoulders was palpable. I am one of the only journalists who has been allowed to visit him in prison.

We spoke for ninety minutes. His sun-starved skin is unusually pale, his hair is now completely white, and he has lost weight. What really struck me, however, was how long his responses took. I was full of questions. Most were met, at least initially, by hesitant silence. Some reticence is to be expected – we know that he was bugged for years while seeking refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy. But this seemed like more than caution. I feared that deep inside, he is retreating from the world.

In the next few days, Assange will be back in court in London. The judges will consider his appeal against the dismissal of most of his technical arguments against extradition to the United States. It was concern about these that first impelled me to take up his case. The US indictment seeks his prosecution for actions that are the daily work of investigative journalists: seeking out a source who has witnessed wrongdoing; and encouraging them to discreetly share what evidence they find.

If Assange is convicted under the provisions of the antique US Espionage Act, it will jeopardise any journalist who is offered classified documents. He is an Australian who published in Europe. His conviction under American law in an US court, would extend US law worldwide. Testimony to this global nature of this threat is evidence in the call from journalists’ organisations for Assange’s release, from Norway to Peru, and Italy to Australia. 

But while my professional role requires that I make this case, it is the wellbeing of the Wikileaks founder that increasingly crowds my thoughts. 

During the extradition hearings, Assange’s health was examined and argued over in forensic detail. It made uncomfortable listening. We learned that for much of his first year in Belmarsh, he was held in effective solitary confinement. During this period, his health declined precipitously. 

Dr Sondra Crosby, Professor of Medicine at Boston University, told the court that she was one of a group of three doctors who assessed Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy in January 2018. She later visited him twice in Belmarsh prison. By that point she said that she was ‘alarmed’ at the state of his health. The Professor said that Assange’s condition was like that of victims of post-traumatic stress disorder, normally only experienced by those who had been in war situations. “He is in the same psychological state as someone who was being chased by a man with a knife and then locks themselves in a room and won’t come out,” she said.

Crosby reported that at times Assange “thought obsessively about suicide”. The court also heard that during the many months that Assange was in effective solitary confinement, he was observed at least nine times a day, on what staff said was “a suicide watch”.

Even Professor Seena Fazel, the forensic psychiatrist from the University of Oxford, who examined Assange on behalf of the US government, was not reassuring. Pressed on whether further solitary confinement was likely to damage Assange’s health, he simply replied “yes”.

We learned also that Assange has, on several occasions, attempted suicide, and that he dreads separation from friends, and particularly family. He is thought to have made preparations to take his own life while in Belmarsh – albeit the attempt was thwarted.

It is hard to feel optimistic about the remaining legal process. Assange’s team has assembled strong arguments, but they have all been rejected once already by a British court. On balance of likelihood, his forthcoming appearance in court will be his last before a European judge. 

I write this now in the hope that President Biden, and Attorney General Garland will be moved to clemency. If you include his Ecuadorian embassy years, Assange has been incarcerated for 12 years now, a substantial stretch by any measure. US government sources have already suggested that resolution without a trial could be possible. Surely this is the moment to redouble efforts to find one?

My overriding concern is with Assange’s welfare, but there would be benefits to the US as well from a simple resolution to this case. If he is tried, much dirty washing will be aired – bugging, assassination plots, the selective application of justice, and breaches of the Geneva Convention. Much better to deploy the resources and attention such a case would command to resolving the real issues this case lays bare – military accountability and intelligence overreach. 

The man who I saw – stark beneath the strip lights – appeared fragile and floundering. He has found solace from religious practice, and been comforted by a message from the Pope. He paces his cell in virtual pilgrimage. 

The measure of a civilised society is its capacity for forgiveness. I implore President Biden to take inspiration from the highest ideals on which the US was founded, to reach into his reserves of humanity, and bring this ugly saga to an end.

* Dominique Pradalié is president of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)

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