The Trial of Julian Assange

By Nils Melzer
Published by Verso, 2022, hardback, £20 rrp.
Available at Bookbuster, 39 Queens Road.

Review by Tim Barton

In HIP194 Nick Pelling gives a satirical perspective on lies and the liars that tell them. Those who tell truth to power are, unsurprisingly, hunted down and assassinated (their character at least, and, occasionally, their person too). Whistleblowers such as Manning, Ellsburg, Silkwood, and Serpico had a hard time trying to dodge bullets sent their way by disgruntled political and industrial powers. Julian Assange may be the most high profile of the lot. It is ironic that the very public attempt to punish whistleblowers just makes more people curious about what ‘secrets’ they told.

Assange’s WikiLeaks was the site that leaked Manning’s intelligence leaks. In 2010, it also leaked a series of documents exposing several incidents of deliberate targeting of civilians by US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan; of torture taking place in US run and sponsored Middle-eastern prisons and black sites; and the international web of US state-sponsored kidnappers that ‘renditioned’ citizens of other countries to Guantanamo Bay, where torture also took place. Many of us saw terrifying video footage of this at the time. Assange was immediately pursued by US secret services and pilloried in the press. 

A DISTURBING PRECEDENT

As Melzer puts it, ‘the CIA’s extraordinary renditions, which involved kidnappings without any legal process, followed by torture and arbitrary detention in secret ‘black sites’ around the globe, had set a disturbing precedent’. Shannon International was a particularly popular European way-station, as were Prestwick, Frankfurt, Ramstein, and Mallorca. Drop-off points included Tashkent, Rabat, and Cairo, as well as Guantanamo: needless to say, these flights were in contravention of numerous international human rights agreements. The Irish state was certainly aware, refusing to search aircraft passing through Shannon, citing ‘international law’ as an excuse. Spook airline shenanigans dated back to at least the Iran-Contra era of the 1980s, as did European state complicity.  Thus, when the 2010 revelations were published, I was unsurprised as the new details emerged.

Almost immediately, the US government, and global corporate media, sought to black Assange’s name, and to extradite him to, most likely, Guantanamo. Assange, an Australian citizen at the time, took refuge in Sweden. There was a good deal of support for Assange, especially on the left.

Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement was well established by this time, and when Assange was accused of sexual misconduct in Sweden, those sympathetic to #MeToo’s campaign were put in a dilemma as to how to treat the Assange issue. The US state certainly sought to manipulate the situation, hoping Assange would lose support. Melzer is very good on exposing as many of the facts behind the accusations as possible. There are certainly questions to be asked. Whilst the ethos of #MeToo is in direct conflict with ‘the presumption of innocence’, most of us sympathise with the desire of women to have sexual assault taken seriously, especially today, when rape conviction rates are at a record low.

THE PENALTIES OF WHISTLEBLOWING

However, whatever the truth or otherwise of these accusations, the Swedish state, despite dropping formal investigation of the charges, made it clear they would not stop the US renditioning Assange if he was arrested in Sweden. The UK government, too, made it clear that the US were their masters in this regard. Thus, Assange claimed asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, remaining trapped there until 2019, when the police were finally allowed in to arrest him.

As I write, he remains in prison in Belmarsh, under conditions human rights lawyers have deemed against international law. His physical and mental health has been badly affected, other prisoners have expressed shock at his treatment, including ‘arbitrary isolation and surveillance’, breaking the UN’s ‘Nelson Mandela Rules’.

These are the penalties of whistleblowing, and it will be even worse if the US get their hands on him to punish him for revealing their lies. Melzer, a UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, gives a very in-depth analysis of the whole affair, ‘a story of persecution’ as he puts it. It is not unique for states to flout international human rights law, but the enormity and extent of their pursuit of Assange is likely to scare many potential whistle-blowers from exposing truth. If Assange is finally cornered by the US, it will be an even bigger blow to free speech.


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