On May 9, UN Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer, visited WikiLeaks founder and journalist Julian Assange at Belmarsh Prison, where he is currently serving a 50-week prison sentence for a minor bail violation. Melzer was accompanied by two medical experts who specialize in the examination of possible victims of torture as well as the documentation of symptoms, both physical and psychological. The team was able to speak with Assange and conduct a medical assessment following a set of guidelines known as “The Istanbul Protocol,” a tool designed to help UN workers and others investigate, document, and report incidents of torture and ill-treatment.
The results were shocking.
According to Melzer, the evidence is overwhelming that Assange has been “deliberately exposed, for a period of several years, to progressively [more] severe forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” the effects of which he described as psychological torture. Melzer also found that Assange has been exposed to:
persistent, progressively [more] severe abuse ranging from systematic judicial persecution and arbitrary confinement in the Ecuadorian embassy, to his oppressive isolation, harassment and surveillance inside the embassy; and from deliberate collective ridicule, insults and humiliation, to open instigation of violence and even repeated calls for his assassination.”
The UN Rapporteur admitted that he had been reluctant to investigate Assange’s case, not because he felt that Assange was a “bad actor” but rather because he had been “affected by the same misguided smear campaign as everybody else.” But as he delved deeper into the case he found that Assange had been subjected to a “relentless and unrestrained campaign of public mobbing, intimidation and defamation,” during which time no government involved tried to intervene or protect him.
In 20 years of work with victims of war, violence and political persecution I have never seen a group of democratic States ganging up to deliberately isolate, demonise and abuse a single individual for such a long time and with so little regard for human dignity and the rule of law.” (UN release)
As a result of the limited number of outside influences to which Assange was exposed, as well as his confinement to a small, controlled environment within the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for more than seven years, Melzer believes that it’s possible to determine the causes of Assange’s symptoms with a high degree of certainty. He found that four nations have “contributed to medical effects” that Melzer and his team observed: Sweden, the U.K., Ecuador, and the U.S.
A UN statement about Melzer’s findings was released on May 31, and since that time Melzer has become one of Assange’s most active and vocal advocates, taking part in well over a dozen interviews about his health, legal difficulties, judicial bias, and more. Below is a summary of 12 different interviews he has given over approximately the last three weeks.
Melzer has frequently spoken about the “elephant in the room,” which he describes as the United States’ attempts to have Assange extradited in order to make an example out of him. Essentially every judicial proceeding Assange has faced since 2010 has revolved around this threat.
His legal troubles began in August 2010, when Sweden opened an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct, including rape and molestation. However, rather than contact Assange directly for questioning, Swedish authorities publicized the case despite the fact that Swedish law strictly prohibited them from doing so. Upon learning about the investigation, Assange immediately went to the police and made a statement, after which the case was closed owing to a lack of evidence.
Days later the case was reopened by a different prosecutor and Assange remained in Sweden until the end of September in order to assist with their investigation. On September 15, 2010, Swedish prosecutor Marianne Ny granted Assange permission to leave the country; so, despite an almost decade-old narrative that Assange “fled” Swedish charges (he was never charged) by hiding out in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, that is absolutely and categorically not true.
It’s also important to note that, when Assange left Sweden, authorities seized his belongings at the airport, including a laptop and other electronics; at which point, had the Swedish prosecutor been so inclined to keep him in the country for questioning, they could have seized him right then and there. Instead, they allowed him to leave.
Once Assange was in the U.K., Sweden requested that he return for questioning, which aroused suspicion owing to the fact that, as Melzer pointed out, the country has a history of cooperating with the U.S. government and turning people over to it without due process, some of whom were rendered and later tortured. Assange feared, correctly, that the “elephant in the room” lay hidden behind Sweden’s request.
He offered to cooperate with Swedish officials if they would guarantee no extradition but they refused to do so, a disingenuous move that not only prevented Assange from defending himself but made clear how little Swedish authorities respected or, perhaps, believed the alleged victims’ stories. Assange also offered to be questioned by video link but they declined.
After the U.K. Supreme Court upheld a Swedish extradition request (over questioning in the case, not charges) in May 2012, Assange, again, under the credible fear that Sweden would extradite him to the U.S., entered the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he sought asylum for political persecution.
He continued to try to assist Swedish officials and offered to be questioned at the Embassy but Sweden refused, despite having previously questioned at least 44 other individuals by video link or traveling for in-person interviews. The Swedish government’s outlandish refusals only fueled speculation that it was working on behalf of the United States. The investigation was finally closed in 2017, but was resurrected by Swedish officials last month.
Melzer points out that the reopened case is not about a violent and/or forced sexual encounter but rather the allegation that Assange purposely tore a condom during consensual sexual relations. The condom was later examined by authorities, who were unable to detect any DNA on it, including Assange’s. This is what Sweden describes as “rape,” and what it has used repeatedly to publicly characterize Assange as a rapist.
Emails between the U.K.’s Crown Prosecution Services (CPS) and Sweden also show that the U.K. pressured Marianne Ny to keep the investigation going despite the fact that there have never been any charges or evidence, leading Melzer to suggest that there are alternative motives behind the case.
Sweden made it impossible for Assange to cooperate without risking being extradited to the U.S., while his reputation, credibility, and human dignity have been “gravely affected by these allegations,” reported Melzer. As stated earlier, the case was reopened last month, making it virtually impossible to believe that this isn’t about the “elephant in the room.”
Almost 10 years of judicial and public abuse
Since WikiLeaks published “Collateral Murder” and the Iraq and Afghanistan War Logs in 2010, Melzer reported that there has been a “sustained and concerted effort by several States” to get Assange extradited to the U.S., and an “endless stream of humiliating, debasing and threatening statements in the press and on social media.” Inappropriate statements have also been made by “senior political figures and even by judicial magistrates involved in proceedings against Assange.”
Reuters reported that Melzer “declined to identify judges or senior politicians whom he accused of defaming Assange,” but you don’t have to look very far to find them:
Here we are not speaking of prosecution but of persecution. That means that judicial power, institutions and proceedings are being deliberately abused for ulterior motives.”
The UN Rapporteur repeatedly condemned Assange’s treatment in various interviews, stating that he is “appalled at the sustained and concerted abuse this man has been exposed to at the hand of several democratic States over a period of almost a decade.” Although Ecuador’s abuse of Assange didn’t start until Lenin Moreno came to power in 2017, since that time government officials deliberately harassed him in an attempt to get him to leave the embassy or to “trigger a health crisis that would justify his expulsion” from the embassy and into British hands.
Neither of those things occurred but President Moreno did expel him from the embassy and suspend his Ecuadorian citizenship without due process of law on April 11, 2019.
The torture of Julian Assange
According to Melzer, Assange has been gravely affected “by the extremely hostile and arbitrary environment he’s been exposed to” over a long period of time and the “evidence is overwhelming and clear” that he is being psychologically tortured, confirming what many already believed or reported.
Melzer and his team determined that Assange is also suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder, with symptoms of “chronic anxiety, permanent severe stress and agitation” (no relaxation or satisfactory sleep for months, possibly years).
During Melzer’s meeting with Assange, the UN Rapporteur found him to be “agitated, under severe stress, and unable to cope with his complex legal cases,” and since his imprisonment, his ability to focus has been compromised. He was also “extremely jumpy,” and Melzer found it difficult to have a “structured” conversation with him.
Assange’s concern was that he couldn’t rely on fair judicial proceedings in either the U.S. or Sweden and that he had no means or time to prepare for the “multiple, complex legal proceedings that are expanding as we speak,” Melzer said. This — accompanied by the hostile, degrading, and humiliating treatment he’s been subjected to, consistently, for almost a decade — has led to “severe stress…and psychological trauma.”
The psychiatrists that accompanied Melzer to the prison noted that Assange needs access to a psychiatrist who isn’t part of the prison system — someone he can trust — and that “if he doesn’t get that and if the pressure on him is not alleviated rapidly,” further deterioration could occur and prolonged effects could result in permanent damage such as irreversible cardiovascular damage — or worse.
Assange’s condition is extremely serious and when he was asked whether Assange could actually die in prison if his calls are ignored, Melzer responded:
Absolutely. Yes, that’s a fear that I think is very real…it has to stop here and it has to stop now.”
The concept of (dis)proportional treatment
During Melzer’s interview with Going Underground, he explained the concept of proportional treatment and how it has factored into Assange’s case. Proportionality is best described as the idea that the severity of the punishment should fit the seriousness of the crime, a concept that has not been applied throughout Assange’s judicial proceedings.
Take, for instance, Sweden’s reopening of its investigation of Assange. As previously stated, he was accused of ripping a condom during a consensual sexual encounter, yet no DNA was ever found on the condom and no evidence suggests this happened. This is what Sweden has used to cast him as a rapist in the public’s eye, despite the presumption of innocence and Swedish law forbidding the government to expose details about the case, such as the accused’s identity.
The UN Rapporteur — a Swiss academic and law professor at the University of Glasgow who has authored several books on international law — explained that any prosecutor confronted with this case would likely conclude that the condom looked planted, owing to the absence of any witnesses (except Assange and the woman), any evidence of physical harm, any DNA, and any transfer of STDs. Melzer stated:
There is no evidence and the prosecutor will know from the beginning, it’s predictable that Julian Assange will have to be acquitted because of presumption of innocence…In these circumstances it is disproportionate to pursue this preliminary investigation for almost a decade.”
Meanwhile, as noted above, Sweden refused to guarantee that it wouldn’t extradite Assange; refused to question him in such a manner that would guarantee his safety, such as by video link or in person at the embassy in London; and refused to do so despite having conducted similar interviews with individuals under investigation in the same manner. Sweden also refused without explanation.
Then, on April 11, 2019, Ecuador’s President Lenin Moreno expelled Assange from the Ecuadorian Embassy with no due process, while he was “unconstitutionally stripped of his citizenship.” Moreno’s decision led to Assange’s arrest by British authorities and Melzer questioned, “What country can [deny you] asylum and citizenship without due process?”
Within three hours of his arrest, Assange was brought to court for a hearing, for which he was granted a mere 15 minutes to prepare with his attorneys, the same amount of time that the hearing lasted. While in front of the judge, his lawyer tried to object based on the “strong conflict of interest” on the part of the judge, who had previously upheld Sweden’s arrest warrant (culminating in the bail violation) and would be overseeing Assange’s extradition case. They asked that the conflict be investigated.
In an extraordinary display of bias and unprofessionalism — perhaps even judicial misconduct — the judge refused to take into account the conflict of interest as well as Assange’s credible fear of being extradited and the fact that Ecuador had given him political asylum, which it contravenes the UNHCR Cessation Clauses to revoke while the threat that gave rise to it remains. Instead, he called Assange a “narcissist” and sentenced him to 50 weeks in a high-security prison for a minor bail violation — and that is the epitome of disproportionality.
Melzer believes that:
We all have to take a step back and ask if all of these proceedings are fair…we also have to take a step back and ask if the narrative is right — rapist, narcissist, selfish, ungrateful, hacker — and scratch the surface a bit and see what’s underneath there.”
U.K. complicity in Assange’s torture
Melzer noted, as we all have, that Assange’s extradition case is being handled by Emma Arbuthnot, the same judge who refused to withdraw Sweden’s 2010 arrest warrant last year despite the fact that the investigation had already been closed. She’s also married to Lord Arbuthnot — the former U.K. minister of defense; former chairman of the defense committee; director of SC Strategy, which is owned by the former head of MI6; and a member of the advisory board for Thales, one of the largest arms manufacturers and dealers in the world.
What makes this situation even more questionable is the fact that Lord Arbuthnot was exposed in WikiLeaks’ publications and that alone — the fact that a judge with such a gross conflict of interest as this has been allowed to sit for not one, but two of Assange’s cases — contributes to the psychological torture, intense stress, and anxiety he’s already experiencing, explained Melzer.
Melzer’s belief is that the U.K. government has “failed to show impartiality and objectivity towards Mr. Assange that is required under the rule of law,” and his concern is that if the government fails to investigate “inappropriate statements, conflicts of interest,” or other sources of bias, his extradition hearing will be nothing more than a “fig leaf for his already pre-judged refoulement [the forced transfer of refugees to a country that is likely to persecute them] to the United States.”
Besides judicial bias and persecution, the U.K. is currently limiting Assange’s access to case documents, as well as to his lawyers, which obstructs his ability to prepare a proper defense. Apparently, he’s not even allowed to have legal documents in his prison cell, nor a computer to work on so he can stay in contact with his attorneys and draft statements.
Multiple legal proceedings that are “piling up” add to Assange’s stress and inability to cope with the demands of his proceedings, stated Melzer, who concluded: “Human Rights law requires that the defendant get enough time to prepare his defense.”
Extradition to the United States
Melzer’s greatest concern about Assange being extradited to the United States is that he will not receive a fair trial and that he’ll be “exposed to a real risk of serious violations of his human rights,” including but not limited to torture and cruel and unusual punishment. He believes that Assange would likely be “subjected to prolonged solitary confinement, to very harsh detention conditions, and to a psychological environment which would break him eventually.”
Assange is currently facing 18 charges in the United States, 17 of which fall under the Espionage Act for doing what journalists do everyday. Melzer believes that “the main narrative in this affair really is the United States wanting to make an example of Mr. Assange in order to deter other people from following his example.”
Subjecting Assange to a harsh sentence, severe prison conditions, and solitary confinement for journalism “amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and [is] in violation of international law as well as the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution,” said Melzer. And prosecuting him for doing what every good investigative journalist and publisher does would be a gross violation of the First Amendment.
The meaning of a fair trial
During his interview with Chris Hedges on RT’s program On Contact, Melzer explained what is meant by a “fair trial” and why he doesn’t think Assange will get one in the United States. First, a fair trial requires that the accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty, but Melzer argues that both public and political opinion has been so tainted against him that it seems absurd to think that Assange would be afforded due process, that his rights would be protected, or that he would face an unbiased judge and jury.
Second, a fair trial requires equality before the law but when the government fails to prosecute those who commit war crimes while prosecuting those who expose them, there is no equality before the law.
As Melzer pointed out, no U.S. officials or military soldiers have ever been charged for gunning down innocent Iraqis, including children, and two Reuters journalists during a 2007 Baghdad airstrike, a crime that was exposed in WikiLeaks’ “Collateral Murder” video. Additionally, no one has been charged for the CIA’s torture program despite the U.S. government’s obligations under the Convention Against Torture. It’s hardly surprising then that the United States has a dismal track record when it comes to enforcing the prohibition of torture. “The only person being prosecuted here seems to be the one that actually exposed all of these crimes,” stated Melzer:
The government really loses any credibility…that’s where — why I say prosecution then becomes persecution because there is no longer the rule of law… These are proceedings that are fundamentally skewed against the defendant.”
As an example of equality under the law, Melzer pointed to two Reuters journalists who had been imprisoned in Myanmar for exposing the massacre of 10 Muslims by Myanmar’s military. Although they were sentenced to 10 years in prison, the soldiers were also prosecuted and sentenced. Both were also later pardoned. But in Assange’s case, one needs only to look at the treatment (torture) and sentencing (35 years in prison) of Chelsea Manning, the whistleblower who leaked U.S. government crimes — and the fact that no one has ever been charged for those crimes — to realize that it’s “utterly unrealistic” to think Assange might be given a fair trial, acquitted, or given a light sentence.
When asked if he thought Assange had committed a crime, Melzer responded that he didn’t think so: although one could try and build a case against him for trying to help someone (unsuccessfully) break a code, “it’s a bit like charging someone for trying to exceed the speed limit but not succeeding because the car is too weak.”
Even Australia isn’t off the hook, according to Melzer, who believes that they have been a “glaring absentee” in Assange’s case. He stated that they have failed to “take steps to protect their national — certainly not from justified criminal prosecution — but to protect him from this kind of excessive, almost persecution that he’s experiencing currently.”
Media culpability and the threat to a free press
Melzer admits that he was reluctant to investigate Assange’s case because he had been affected by media propaganda and that it wasn’t until he started to “scratch the surface” of it that he realized how little substance there was to the stories — but how much spin and manipulation lay beneath.
He urged everyone to look deeper into the case and warned us that we have been deliberately misled about Assange. From The Canary:
The predominant image of the shady ‘hacker,’ ‘sex offender,’ and selfish ‘narcissist’ has been carefully constructed, disseminated and recycled in order to divert attention from the extremely powerful truths he exposed…”
It can’t be emphasized enough how insightful Melzer’s interview with The Canary was in terms of the media’s accountability and how Assange’s case will affect a free and protected press:
In today’s information age, the media have an extraordinary power to shape public opinion…The media are a veritable ‘fourth power’ in the state next to the traditional branches of government, controlling not only what is said and shown, but also what is not disseminated…media outlets and individual journalists…have contributed significantly to spreading abusive and deliberately distorted narratives about Mr. Assange.”
Melzer went on to say that the media has failed to challenge governments or hold officials accountable for criminality and corruption and that they have created conditions that are ripe for violating Assange’s “most fundamental rights without provoking public outrage.”
He warned against Assange’s extradition in the UN’s released statement because it would raise concerns over the criminalization of investigative journalism, and in The Canary interview he stated that it would “establish a dangerous precedent of impunity threatening freedom of press and opinion worldwide.”
Since his medical assessment of Assange, Melzer has sent out four official letters to Sweden, the U.K., Ecuador, and the United States urging them to “refrain from further disseminating, instigating or tolerating statements or other activities prejudicial to Assange’s human rights and dignity.” He also asked that they take measures to provide Assange redress and rehabilitation and that he not be extradited to the U.S. or any country that refuses to guarantee no extradition.
All our countries have violated the Convention on Torture and are directly involved in the “sustained and concerted abuse” inflicted on Assange. Melzer believes that if Assange has really committed a crime, he has the right to develop a defense with his attorneys and a guarantee that his rights will be protected. The UN Rapporteur would also like to see an “independent observation” on how Assange’s judicial proceedings are handled, as well as his health stabilized, and that he be given time to recover before having to face the monumental court proceedings ahead of him.
Melzer’s personal belief is that Assange should be released, compensated, and rehabilitated by the four involved States because he has suffered enough.
The opinions of Melzer, whether personal or professional, should not be taken lightly. In addition to being appointed UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 2016, he is the current human rights chair of the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, and served as a legal adviser, delegate and deputy head of delegation with the Red Cross for 12 years, during which time he worked in conflict zones.
He has an extensive background in humanitarian work and, according to the European Parliament, he specializes in “targeting and the use of force, cyber-conflict and the regulation of private military and security companies.” His focus also includes work on “international legal challenges arising in the contemporary security environment,” and he has authored several books — such as Target Killing In International Law, which examines the legality of targeted killing — as well as academic papers like “Cyberwarfare and International Law,” which discusses the humanitarian aspects of cyberwarfare as well as how international law pertains to it.
To say that Melzer is qualified in his field would be an understatement and his report on Julian Assange and the role that Sweden, the U.K., Ecuador, and the United States have played in the psychological torture and deteriorating condition of Julian Assange should be taken with the seriousness it deserves.
The UN Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer, concluded that Julian Assange is and has been for years psychologically tortured and that available evidence strongly suggests Sweden, the U.K., Ecuador, and the United States are responsible for the “sustained and concerted abuse inflicted” upon him. Each of these countries have failed to protect the Australian publisher from “serious abuse, insult, and intimidation by media and other private actors within their jurisdiction.”
By displaying an attitude of complacency at best, and of complicity at worst, these governments have created an atmosphere of impunity encouraging Mr. Assange’s uninhibited vilification and abuse.”
Additionally, Assange is being denied the right to fair judicial proceedings and due process — including the U.S. secret grand jury indictment; the Swedish government’s continued investigation and dissemination of “Assange is a rapist” propaganda; U.K. judges’ overt bias and conflicts of interest; and lastly, Ecuador’s termination of his asylum status and citizenship. Melzer recently wrote on Twitter:
In U.K. courts #Assange is insulted a ‘narcissist’; jailed for seeking asylum; facing US extradition for journalism’ prosecuted by CPS known to have instigated his persecution; under a judge with known conflict of interest; under a Govt having prejudged him.”
As of now, Melzer believes that the most logical explanation for the “sustained systematic failure of the judiciary” under which Assange has suffered is that the U.S. is trying to make an example of him in an effort to deter others from doing what it is that WikiLeaks and Assange do: publishing the truth.
For Melzer, it’s almost inconceivable that there are “so many layers of so profoundly skewed and bias[ed] steps in the judicial proceedings” for this to be a coincidence. He doesn’t believe Assange would receive a fair and impartial trial in the U.S. and the case raises serious concerns about a free press.
“The collective persecution of Julian Assange must end here and now!” declared Melzer.
A full extradition hearing has been set for February 2020.
Feature photo | Menyalastudio | Shutterstock
Jjimmysllama is an independent researcher and writer who provides balanced, critical analysis with a focus on the Boston bombings, Magnitsky Act, and WikiLeaks. She is currently trying to stay warm in the Midwest. You can read more of her work at jimmysllama.com and find her on Twitter at @jimmysllama.