As I watched Judge Vanessa Baraitser give her verdict in the Assange extradition case at the Old Bailey yesterday, a deep depression settled over me. I’ve heard every minute of the Assange case from the moment it started in Belmarsh in February last year, through three weeks in September at the Old Bailey, to this forty-five-minute summary of the verdict.
For forty minutes of that three-quarters of an hour the judge rejected every defense argument against extradition. Journalists are allowed to tweet court proceedings as they happen, thanks to a ruling in an earlier Assange hearing.
I watched Assange come into the court and take his seat. At a little after quarter past ten, the judge began by rejecting Assange’s political offenses defense because the extradition treaty wasn’t part of UK law. She went on to say that Assange helped Chelsea Manning to download materials — a line which went along with the prosecutors’ case, including its most dubious claims. Then she said there was no public interest defense.
Fifteen minutes into the judgement, the judge still seemed to be concurring with the arguments made by the US state. She refused to accept that Assange was being extradited for his political views, excused CIA spying on Assange, including in the embassy, and defended Ecuador’s withdrawal of asylum. Then Judge Baraitser made the most remarkable statement of all: “This court trusts a US court will uphold Assange’s civil liberties.”
Few who heard this lengthy defense of the US empire’s pursuit of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks could have been in much doubt that an extradition order was coming. It seemed a clear-cut verdict, based on almost total credit being given to the prosecution for their case — including considerable evidence which Assange’s team hadn’t had the opportunity to challenge. But then something extraordinary happened.
At almost 11 AM, the tone changed. The judge accepted that Assange suffered from depression and that he would likely be held in solitary confinement in the United States, worsening the condition. Then she recognized the threat of suicide this situation posed. On these grounds, the extradition was refused.
In the final few moments of the verdict, the judge ruled that conditions in the United States’s super-max prisons are simply too brutal for Julian Assange to be incarcerated without serious risk that he would take his own life. The prisons are, she accepted, “oppressive.”
So, if the US government wishes to know why it lost this extradition hearing, and lost it in the court of a judge that is fundamentally in agreement with their case in every particular, then it boils down to this: the US prison system is too inhumane, to damaging to those in its care, for a human being to avoid thoughts of self harm or even suicide.
If the US lawyers insist on going ahead with appealing to a higher court to try and enforce their extradition request it will not be Julian Assange who is on trial. It will be the US prison system. We have every reason to campaign to ensure that they lose this battle for a second time.
The verdict is a triumph for Assange, his family, his lawyers, and his supporters. But it leaves many questions unanswered. Most immediate of those is the question of bail: Assange should already be walking the streets as a free man. He faces no charges and his extradition has been refused by the only court it is before.
But the judge sent him back to the hell of Belmarsh (no better than a US super-max), pending yet another hearing on Wednesday. There is no reason, beyond the convenience of the US prosecutors, that he should remain in jail. He should be freed immediately.
We also have to return to the deeply problematic points in the judgement, which undermine so much of what was being fought for in this case — from political freedom to freedom of the press and the rights of whistleblowers.
The judge actually went beyond the claims of the US prosecutors when she said that the fact that the extradition treaty was not fully written into UK law means that there is, intentionally, no defense for political dissidents in the UK’s extradition arrangements. This cannot be allowed to stand, and it is not how MPs, both Labour and Tory, remember the assurances given by the Blair government when the current treaty was adopted.
Nor should we accept for a second the judge’s claims that there is no public interest defense for whistleblowers and journalists, or her claim that those being persecuted for their political opinions should not enjoy the protection of the law. All these glaring contradictions with accepted norms are a product of the judge’s decision to reject extradition on narrow grounds while accepting the overwhelming majority of the prosecution case.
No doubt this approach appeals to the political establishment. Ruling against Assange on questions of journalistic freedom but banishing the political embarrassment of his case on the basis that he is too weak to endure the US prison system is an expedient way out of the mess that they have created.
It’s exactly the kind of political fix that has kept the old and cunning English establishment in power for centuries. Other examples might be the transportation of the Tolpuddle martyrs, and their return before the full span of punishment was complete under public pressure, or the sudden intervention of the little known “official solicitor” which freed the Pentonville dockers in 1972 — again under the threat of mass campaigning and strike action.
And therein lies the lesson. Without constant public campaigning the pressure simply would not have existed to produce a verdict such as this. The way to remedy its partial and inadequate nature is more of the same.