How war crimes went unpunished and a publisher became the criminal

July 3, 2022
Free Julian Assange
A still from a digital video montage of a banner drop in support of Julian Assange from London's Tower Bridge. Image: Wikileaks Art Force/Facebook

The Trial of Julian Assange: A story of persecution
By Nils Melzer (with Oliver Kobold)
London, Verso. 2022
Also available as an audio book

This highly readable, newly-released book offers a wealth of information on the ongoing persecution and torture of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.

The book is as invaluable for those who have supported Assange from the outset, as it is for those sceptical of his fear of extradition to the United States, or influenced by the prolonged character assassination campaign against him.

It begins with a compelling explanation of why the book has come into existence. Author Nils Melzer was the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture at the time of writing the book. It was his role to monitor adherence to the UN prohibition on all forms of torture, to investigate claims of torture and to make recommendations to states on prevention, investigation and punishment of torture. Normally, this work takes place out of the public eye, through official channels, with conventions that provide states with an opportunity to respond and make good before reports are made public.

Melzer explains that after having been thwarted, repeatedly, systematically, by country after country, and after having exhausted all the routine, official channels to stop the ongoing persecution and torture of Assange, he took the unusual step of writing a book, to alert the world to what was going on and build public pressure to end Assange’s persecution.

He moves between the narrative of his own work relating to Assange, on the one hand, and the history of Assange’s exposure of war crimes and other crimes against humanity committed by powerful states; followed by those states’ reaction to punish him instead of investigating and punishing those crimes.

By including his own work, he establishes the credibility of his findings on the persecution of Assange.

Melzer begins with a mea culpa — despite his years of work with people who have been subjected to torture, and although working on the link between corruption and torture — when first approached to aid Assange, he initially rejected the request. Unwittingly, he had fallen for the very smear campaign that has been part of the process of demonising and destroying Assange. Melzer writes that for months he refused to entertain the idea that Assange was being tortured and was in need of his help.

Step-by-step, he explains how he came to consider the request, to meet Assange, to examine him along with doctors expert in the assessment of victims of physical and mental torture, and to come to the conclusion that through a combination of irregular and arbitrary legal processes, unlawful seizure of property, public vilification, arbitrary detention, isolation, illegal surveillance, and the threat of extrajudicial or state-sanctioned execution, Assange was being persecuted and tortured.

In the course of his investigation, he amassed about 10,000 pages of credible evidence from a range of sources — a number that would have been greater, if the involved states had cooperated with his investigations, rather than stonewalling and sabotaging them.

He introduces an important yardstick by which to judge the actions of Sweden, Britain, Ecuador and the US — that of a good faith actor. In other words, where one or two bad decisions might be attributable to chance, accident or bureaucratic pettiness, a state acting in good faith would respond to criticism and questions with efforts to provide transparency, to correct errors and ensure due process. Where this is systematically not the case, we must conclude it is deliberate.

In the numerous twists and turns of the narrative, Melzer is not setting himself up as infallible, or as the one with all the facts, or primarily interested in the criminal culpability of this or that person. Rather, he looks, and encourages us to look, for the pattern that emerges — from the failures of the US to investigate or prosecute anyone in relation to the “Collateral Murder” video, to the irregularities in the years-long “preliminary” investigation by the Swedish prosecutor, to the illegal confiscation of Assange’s property (including legally privileged material), and ruling after ruling by British courts where judges failed to recuse themselves, made rushed decisions, and denied procedural fairness.

Where one one mistake may be random, taken together they point inexorably to the conclusion that the treatment of Assange is intentional, the outcome of acts performed in bad faith. With a great deal of precision, in the course of the account, Melzer points the finger at each of Sweden, Britain, Ecuador and the US as states responsible for and complicit in Assange’s torture.

Melzer’s treatment of the allegations of rape against Assange is both sensitive and detailed. He makes note of the process violations experienced by the Swedish women who first attended the police station — not to report a rape, but to try to get Assange to have an HIV test.

Unlike some unfortunately prominent supporters of Assange who used sexist tropes to downplay the seriousness of the allegations, Melzer recognises the harm done to the women, as their primary concern about HIV is completely overlooked, they are told they have no say in whether or not a rape investigation is opened, and their names are leaked to the media (contrary to assurances of privacy).

Through what can only be understood as bad faith on the part of the Swedish authorities, the case against Assange is opened and closed three times, stuck in a “preliminary stage” for years, and dragged on without resolution until the time for any charges to be laid elapses. While Melzer provides a detailed timeline and descriptions drawn from witness testimony, he doesn’t attempt to adjudicate the case — more instructively noting that any chance of this happening was precluded by the decisions made by the Swedish prosecutors.

Australia rates a special mention by Melzer — not for being directly complicit, like the other four states, but for its acts of omission. He endorses Assange’s lawyers’ reference to an Australian “Declaration of Abandonment”, calls the Australian government’s official responses “formalistic, self-righteous and sanctimonious” and asserts that Assange “had been discarded by his own government”.

Melzer refers to Australia as the “Glaring Absentee”, clearly absenting itself from political intervention and merely providing consular services. As he puts it, “In the world of diplomatic relations, this means that the Australian government needed a modicum of window dressing for domestic consumption, but never intended to fundamentally challenge the dehumanisation and persecution of Assange by its allies.” As progressives across Australia currently heave a collective sigh of relief at the ousting of the conservative LNP government of Scott Morisson, it is worth remembering that the persecution of Assange, and Australia’s response as described by Melzer, began on the watch of the Kevin Rudd Labor government.

In June, British Home Secretary Priti Patel ruled that Assange may indeed be extradited to the US, vindicating Assange’s claims for asylum in the Ecuadorean embassy, and his fear of being extradited to the US. The risks of facing an unfair trial, unwarranted punishment and the threat of death there are just as real.

Assange needs more allies than ever, and this book offers supporters a wealth of information with which to make the case, and an unbiased source for any honest journalist, politician or citizen who wants to understand what’s at stake.

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