By Jérôme Duval for MrMondialisation
Last March, one of our journalists had the opportunity to speak with Eva Joly, a lawyer and former Member of Parliament, about the details of the Assange case, as she herself knows the main protagonist personally. The subjects of their exchange included the hunt for the whistleblower, his revelations, his conditions of detention and his trial. And in parallel, the questions raised in terms of freedom of information, human rights and democracy. Exclusive interview.
Julian Assange has made a name for himself by exposing damning atrocities during the US invasion and war in Iraq and Afghanistan – two wars fought with lies – including the publication in April 2010 of the video Collateral murder, in which two Reuters reporters and several civilians were shot at from an American Apache helicopter. In the same year, WikiLeaks, of which he is the founder and spokesman, released hundreds of thousands of military and diplomatic documents relating to war crimes and acts of torture committed by the US military.
In order to protect himself from US prosecution behind a Swedish arrest warrant for rape charges that he has always denied, Julian Assange spent seven years in seclusion in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he took refuge in June 2012. The CIA spied on his every move, those of his relatives and defenders within the Embassy via the security company UC Global. On 11 April 2019, Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno ended his right to asylum. He was arrested by British police the same day and has since been held in Belmarsh high security prison. Charged with espionage and 17 other charges, if the British justice system accepts the request for extradition to the United States, he faces 175 years in prison at the end of an extraordinary trial that began on 24 February.
A former magistrate, Eva Joly made a name for herself during her career by investigating political and financial cases such as the Elf affair, which led to some thirty convictions, including that of Loïk Le Floch-Prigent. She was an MEP for Europe Ecology-The Greens between 2009 and 2019 and is now a lawyer at the Paris bar.
Eva Joly, you have known Julian Assange for a long time, when you worked in Iceland with this young computer scientist on the project to transform Iceland into a paradise for journalism, for the protection of information. During an evening of solidarity with the whistleblower on 21 February at the Bourse du Travail in Paris, you alluded to a plane full of FBI agents landing in Iceland in 2011 on the pretext of an imminent computer attack against the government. Can you tell us more about this?
Eva Joly: The FBI was following Julian Assange, their agents knew he was in Iceland and they landed. They had contacted Interior Minister Ögmundur Jónasson, telling him that the Icelandic government’s computer system was in danger and that the FBI was offering to help. But Ögmundur Jónasson understood the manoeuvre and he refused. It went unnoticed, but his testimony is still available on the Internet[i]. The fact that Julian Assange was under surveillance and that the United States wanted to get its hands on him very early on is a fact.
What is the situation of Chelsea Manning, convicted for the disclosure of the Collateral Murder video published by Wikileaks?
Eva Joly: We can see that the perpetrators of the war crime who appear in this video have not been prosecuted and yet they are easily identifiable. On the other hand, the whistleblower who showed this war crime is wanted. Chelsea Manning has been arrested and prosecuted. She is convicted of breaking into a computer system and disseminating confidential information. She was sentenced to 35 years in prison, then released by presidential pardon by Barack Obama on the last day of his presidency, she had already served seven years of her sentence. Paradoxically, she is still detained[ii], after being repeatedly convicted of contempt of court for refusing to testify before the Grand Jury against Assange. This shows that Julian Assange would not get a fair trial in the United States, which is one of the conditions for accepting extradition, since the requested country, in this case the United Kingdom, must be certain that the trial will be fair.
Julian Assange’s lawyer, Edward Fitzgerald, said that on the first day of the trial, which opened in London on 24 February, his client had been stripped naked and searched twice, handcuffed 11 times and locked up five times in different holding cells. During his trial, Julian Assange was not seated with his lawyers as is customary, but was confined to the back of the courtroom, locked in a bullet-proof glass cage. Conditions that penalize the accused and seem unfair since they prevent him from following the proceedings, but which do not seem to bother the magistrate, Vanessa Baraitser. Is such a system unprecedented and is all this in accordance with the law?
Eva Joly: Here we see that the British are not treating Assange normally, because he was first sentenced to 50 weeks for breach of judicial supervision pronounced in 2012, when he was the subject of a Swedish extradition request. He had been allowed his liberty but forced to report regularly to the police. Julian Assange understood that he would be extradited to Sweden, he was convinced that it was a manoeuvre to hand him over to the United States, and he took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he was granted consular asylum. He stayed there for seven years. When Lenin Moreno, the President of Ecuador ended that asylum in 2017, the police took him out of the embassy in a very violent manner. He was taken to Belmarsh Prison, a maximum security prison. Now, Julian Assange is a multi-award winning journalist, he is not a terrorist. Especially since we know that the arrest warrant behind the Swedish extradition request had a very thin legal basis. We know that it was a manipulation. They sentenced Julian Assange almost to the maximum penalty for failure to comply with judicial supervision, 50 weeks, the maximum being 52, and they made him serve his sentence among those who detonate bombs and kill civilians. This is a signal sent by the United Kingdom, and it is unworthy of British justice. It is clear that the prison administration has instructions to execute his sentence first and then his pre-trial detention in the worst possible conditions.
In prison, he was placed in solitary confinement, and when he finished serving his sentence, he was remanded in custody, again awaiting trial. The solitary confinement ended only two or three weeks before the trial. There were also movements of prisoners who were sympathetic and asked that he be released from solitary confinement. All of this is abnormal. Julian Assange does not belong in a maximum security prison. The political situation is bad for Assange. We know that he was tortured and humiliated, and the UN rapporteur who assessed him has seen the impact of torture on his person.
At the hearing, when his lawyers requested that their client be allowed to sit next to them, the judge refused. The prosecutor’s office, representing the State, supported the lawyers’ request by justifying the customary nature of such a practice. Despite this, the judge opposed it. The whole situation is abnormal. According to the texts, it is the Westminster Magistrates Court that has to give an opinion, but the hearing is taking place at the Belmarsh Magistrates Court. In order to comply with the law, the Westminster staff and judges have been relocated so that Julian Assange does not have to be relocated. Are they open to attack on this aspect, or on the unfair conditions under which the trial was conducted?
Eva Joly: Yes, Assange’s treatment is the treatment of a terrorist. He was refused his glasses for six months, which, along with the isolation, is bad treatment.
If the British justice system agrees to extradite him to the United States at the end of this trial, will Julian Assange risk the death penalty for espionage?
Eva Joly: There is a fundamental rule: you don’t extradite to a country that practises the death penalty unless you have guarantees that the death penalty will not be requested or pronounced.
But you can’t extradite people for political offences either…
Eva Joly: Absolutely, it’s been more than a century since political prisoners were extradited. Otherwise you realize, we would have extradited the Chileans who were fleeing Pinochet, the Kurds who were fleeing Turkey, etc. The world is full of conflicts and political refugees who feel safe because if they get a visa, they know they cannot be extradited. It is true that, in this trial, the prosecution is trying to prove that, even if the offences of which Assange is accused are political, he could still be extradited.
Can extradition not be prevented by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights[iii] which protects freedom of expression?
Eva Joly: All this should protect this multi-award winning journalist, but we see that it does not protect him, which makes us fear the worst for the future. The FBI has been following the case for a long time. Julian Assange was also being watched by a Spanish company working for the CIA while he was granted political asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. If Julian Assange is extradited, it is the end of the rule of law in the West as we have built it for nearly a century. In the name of the fight against terrorism we are giving up many freedoms because we believe that security is a higher value. We have not understood that we are in fact going to sacrifice freedoms without having security. This trial sheds a stark light on what is happening.
Concerning the rape charges against Julian Assange, the Swedish justice system dropped the charges due to lack of evidence. Are you surprised by this drop in charges?
Eva Joly: It was very costly for Julian Assange. We also know that the Swedish public prosecutor was keen to end the investigation earlier, but that she was encouraged to keep the investigation open by the Crown Prosecution Service [the service responsible for deciding on prosecutions in England and Wales]. We have evidence of that. We also have evidence of the FBI’s involvement in the case, but the Swedish prosecutor, Marianne Ny, destroyed the e-mails she admits to having received from the FBI.
You criticized the media silence after some 60 international doctors tried to alert the world to Julian Assange’s physical and psychological state of health in November, when they were seriously considering that he might “die in prison”. This silence came from a press that has made extensive use of and benefited from the revelations that Julian Assange and his team had brought to it about the abuses and war crimes committed by the allies in Iraq and Afghanistan. How do you explain such a change in attitude?
Eva Joly: Absolutely. The Guardian, the New York Times and Aftenposten[iv] have won prestigious awards for their work with WikiLeaks documents. It’s important to understand that it’s the CIA’s and the FBI’s manipulations that have led to this reversal of opinion. The issue was no longer what Julian Assange had been able to prove, but whether or not he had raped someone.
Precisely, how can one sue Assange for his publications, while sparing the media that benefited and disclosed the content? Didn’t these media act in the same way as WikiLeaks by disseminating information passed on by a third party?
Eva Joly: In the United States, American journalists enjoy the protection of the First Amendment. This was the case with the Pentagon papers, where the DOJ (Department of Justice) tried to prosecute whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg who had them published for espionage. The Supreme Court ruled that he had only been using freedom of speech and that he was entitled to protection under the First Amendment to the Constitution. We therefore know that citizens of the United States are protected by this amendment. However, foreign journalists are not. Julian Assange in the United States would therefore not be able to invoke the First Amendment and, logically, there would be a risk that European journalists could be prosecuted.
Nils Melzer, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, says: “This is not just about protecting Assange, but about preventing a precedent that could seal the fate of Western democracy.” Are we going to turn Julian Assange into a martyr?
Eva Joly: If we accept the extradition of Julian Assange, we are admitting the de facto supremacy of US law over our own. In Europe, however, it is not forbidden to publish genuine news of general interest, journalists are protected by the European Convention on Human Rights. What Julian Assange published cannot therefore be described as espionage in the United Kingdom or elsewhere in Europe. Julian Assange cannot be extradited because of double jeopardy and because he would not get a fair trial in the United States. These are two more than sufficient reasons to oppose this extradition.
[i] ”Ex-Icelandic Interior Minister: US Tried to FRAME Julian Assange in Iceland!” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CmPQY7cXOIg, “Jónasson: The Icelandic Minister who refused cooperation with the FBI”, Marta Pacheco, Katoikos, 7 December 2016. http://www.katoikos.eu/interview/icelandic-minister-who-refused-cooperation-with-the-fbi-ogmundur-jonasson-in-an-interview.html
[ii] Chelsea Manning was released on March 12, 2020 after a suicide attempt the day before. The financial penalties imposed to force her to testify against Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange remain in effect and she will have to pay $256,000 in fines.
[iii] A guide on the implementation of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. https://www.refworld.org/docid/49f17f3a2.html; European Convention on Human Rights: https://www.echr.coe.int/Documents/Convention_ENG.pdf
[iv] Conservative newspaper in Norway.