27 February 2020 — 21st Century Wire
(Photo: Patrick Henningsen © 2020)
21st Century Wire
LONDON – Over the first two days of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s U.S. extradition hearing, the majority of the drama has taken place in the well of the court, but that all changed on Wednesday as the focus gradually drifted to the back of the room, behind adjoined panels of bulletproof glass.
Throughout the first three days of the hearing, Assange’s defense team, led by Edward Fitzgerald QC and Mark Summers QC, laid out an impressive score of skillful legal arguments, which can only be described as effortlessly debunking and dismantling nearly all of the allegations contained in the prosecution’s 18 federal indictments. If this were a normal jury trial, then the defense would have already called for a motion to dismiss.
In the opposite corner, the prosecution representing the United States Department of Justice, erected a classic stonewall; a stoic and seemingly imperturbable argument which insists that absolutely nothing the defense has submitted, including any protections international treaties on extradition and human rights, is even remotely relevant in the face of immovable British statutes and the very narrow remit of the Crown Court. It cannot happen under the 2003 Extradition Act which was stripped of the provision which bars extradition from Britain for any political offense. It had been there in previous versions of this UK legislation, but unfortunately was removed during the reign of Tony Blair’s government. Hence, Lewis’s remit is simply to execute the order from Washington, and let Julian get his ‘fair trial’ once he arrives in one of America’s most notorious legal black holes: the eastern district of Virginia.
Day three started off much the same as the previous two days, with another commanding defense presentation by Fitzgerald who proceeded to lay out and unbox the fundamental legal backdrop which colours this week’s hearings, that is whether or not Julian’s extradition for purely political offense, like espionage, is protected by the existence of public international law, or will it be rendered irrelevant by UK domestic law, which, constitutionally speaking, cannot confer that right to the defendant which is not expressly stated by an act of Parliament. The answer to that question may very well decide which way the judge ultimately rules on this issue.
All the while, Assange sat in the back of the courtroom, in the dock behind thick glass, seemingly relaxed, but clearly stirring underneath it all.
His defense had made it known earlier to the judge that their client was on medication for an ongoing condition, and how this may likely impair his ability to engage with the day’s proceedings.
It came to a head after lunch. The defendant finally inserted himself into the proceedings, only this time it wasn’t the sort of engagement his lawyers or the court, were expecting to see. Breaking the court’s strict protocol, Julian stood up and addressed the judge and the court, in an exasperating plea declaring that he’d had enough of the repressive treatment and the spying. He mounted a mordant protest in his own defense.
“The problem is I cannot participate, it’s that I cannot privately communicate with my lawyers.”
“I cannot communicate with my lawyers or ask them for clarifications without the other side seeing,” said Assange.
“The other side has about 100 times more contact with their lawyers per day.”
“What is the point of asking if I can concentrate if I cannot participate?”
He added that, “I am as much a participant in these proceedings as I am at Wimbledon.”
— Bean (@SomersetBean) February 26, 2020
On Tuesday, Edward Fitzgerald informed the court that since the end of the previous session on Monday, his client had been handcuffed 11 times, stripped searched twice, and had his legal and his privileged personal client-attorney paper confiscated from him by prison guards. If that weren’t enough, according to his father John Shipton, the day before his hearing was due to begin, HM Belmarsh prison guards turned over his cell and searched his belongs for contraband.
When the defense raised some of these issues during session, Judge Vanessa Baraitser informed the defense that it was not in her jurisdiction to rule on such issues and told the defense to take the matter up with Her Majesty’s prisons.
All of this clearly pushed Assange to this moment of outburst.
After a brief word between Assange and his solicitor Gareth Peirce, QC Fitzgerald then asked the judge if court would allow Assange to leave the glass enclosure in the back of the court, and relocate to the well of the court to sit with his lawyers in order to allow him to participate in the trial.
Fitzgerald reassured the court that his client posed “no risk,” to which Judge Vanessa Baraitser replied, “security might disagree” and that there was concern of a “security risk.”
Technically, Assange would have to make an application for bail in order to leave the dock.
U.S. lawyer James Lewis QC seemed to support the request of the defense in general, but indicated that the prosecution would refuse bail, as legally he could not still be in custody but be able to move freely in the well of the court, unless perhaps he was handcuffed or was to have a security guard sitting on each side of him.
Fitzgerald went on to reiterate that his client is a “gentleman and an intellectual.”
The defense said they would make their application to the court for Assange to come out from the dock, and join his lawyers in the well of the court, at which time a risk assessment would take place sometime today.
This might be par for the course in a counter-terrorism court, which this Woolwich venue is, only Julian Assange is not a terrorist. To pretend that he is, speaks to the total farce of the political theatre we’ve witnessed over these years.
In its totality, what this situation demonstrates is that Mr. Assange has neither any rights, nor privileges.
In so many ways, this courtroom drama encapsulates everything that’s wrong with his apprehension and detention from day one, and even long before that. The US and its ally the UK, along with the Swedish authorities and the Moreno government of Ecuador – have all colluded in concert to the design of this decade-long minotaur’s maze of legalese.
This, along with the unprecedented harsh conditions of his detention and active effort on the part of HM prisons to restrict access to his defense team and basic materials for the preparation of his defense, and this drama becomes a mere illusion of due process.
Considering the real civil liberty ramifications of this case, Julian deserves much better. The arguments presented by the defense this week have been overwhelming, he doesn’t just deserve to be released, it is his right.
Author Patrick Henningsen is an American writer and global affairs analyst and founder of independent news and analysis site 21st Century Wire, and is host of the SUNDAY WIRE weekly radio show broadcast globally over the Alternate Current Radio Network (ACR). He has written for a number of international publications and has done extensive on-the-ground reporting in the Middle East including work in Syria and Iraq. See his archive here.
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