Assange’s Arrest: the British Government’s War on a Journalist and Media Freedom

This article was published in April 2019 in 21st Century Wire

The British government has waged a war on Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, for nearly 10 years. It has used every soft power tool in its arson: the judiciary, international treaties, media, government, diplomatic power and the deprivation of health care.   For his role in exposing US  war crimes and corruption, the US establishment, outraged, has conspired to silence Assange, constructing charges against him and demanding his extradition.  Meanwhile, the British government has tactically used vast state resources to serve Washington, all the while following the agenda of extradition and persecution.  By doing this the government, along with much of the political class, has shown its complicity in what is recognised as a war not just on Assange but on journalists, publishers and whistle blowers, a war on freedom of the press and free speech. In this war, the British  government has violated multiple human rights laws. 

Comments regarding the use of law in  Assange’s case have been given in correspondence by Alfred De Zayas, former UN rapporteur to Venezuela and Ecuador who visited Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy in London in 2015.

Government lawyers destroying the law 

De Zayas describes the actions of the British and Swedish authorities towards  Assange as:

contrary  to the rule of law and contrary to the spirit of the law

From the outset De Zayas has warned that the use of the law against Assange has been politically driven:

…it is more than evident that the charges in Sweden were trumped-up.  This in itself is an additional violation of domestic and international law.

The investigation into sexual allegations made against Assange was initially quickly dropped.  It was then picked up again by lawyers who then applied the law in such a way that trapped Assange and secured a pocket of opportunity for his extradition to the US. The inaction of the Swedish prosecutors over several years gives further credence that the investigation has been used as a vehicle to achieve extradition.

The warrant for extradition was issued despite Assange receiving permission to travel to the UK from Sweden where the allegations were made, and where he had offered to meet with the prosecutors.   It is also well-known that Assange jumped bail to seek asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London in 2012 to avoid being extradited to Sweden, known for its compliance towards the US.  If extradited there, Assange feared persecution by the outraged government whose war crimes and corruption he exposed.

Former Stockholm chief district prosecutor, Sven-Erik Alhem, described the steps to extradite Assange as:

unreasonable and unprofessional, as well as unfair and disproportionate

He has stated the Swedish government had no legitimate reason to extradite Assange as he could simply have been questioned in the UK, which Assange offered repeatedly.

Emails acquired through freedom of information requests to the UK and Swedish authorities, collected by journalists,  show that the UK Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) wanted Assange extradited to Sweden and put off any investigation being carried out in the UK:

My earlier advice remains, that in my view it would not be prudent for the Swedish authorities to try to interview the defendant in the UK  (Paul Close, CPS lawyer)

Thus I suggest you interview him only on his surrender to Sweden and in accordance with Swedish law 

The pressure by the CPS on Swedish prosecutors not to question Assange in the embassy continued until 2016, during which time the investigation remained in preliminary stage:

The reason that the requisite interview interrogation did not occur until late 2016 was, it transpires, on the advice of the CPS. Once the interview did occur, the proceedings were swiftly discontinued (Gareth Peirce and Mark Summers, Assange Lawyers, Westminster Magistrates’ Court) 

These are investigators who knew who the accused was, where the accused was, and for years failed to knock on the door.  Instead, they chose the dead-end route to the investigation for all concerned, and left Assange with the threat of extradition to the US hanging over him,  and with it the risk of persecution.  This looks like a strategic and politically-driven use of the law by the UK and Sweden.  De Zayas has condemned the weaponizing of the law against Assange:

Both violated article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty and should be denounced for allowing the administration of justice to be politicized and used as weapons against a journalist — thereby violating article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights….

I think that the collusion of government lawyers in what must be termed an Orwellian persecution of a journalist is shocking

Baltasar Garzon, the judge who indicted Pinochet and has defended Assange, has described the motive behind the persecution; Assange is a scapegoat.

Sexual allegations a smokescreen for politicised use of the law

The stalling tactic also meant Assange would be attached to a sexual misconduct allegation over a long period of time, a platform for vilification the British government exploited after the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found Assange to be arbitrarily detained in 2015.  ‘Human Rights’ Minister at the time, Dominic Raab clearly shows how the ‘fugitive from justice’ narrative has been used as a smokescreen to perpetuate state-sponsored persecution:

The ruling is factually upside down.  It lacks moral clarity for the UN to suggest what they have about Mr Assange’s position given that he holed himself up in the  Ecuadorian embassy, and he is facing a serious allegation of rape. Sweden is not some tin pot banana republic. It’s a country with a well-respected justice system. He can forget about compensation, and frankly many people here will think this kind of nonsense undermines the credibility of the UN, which is not what we want

Because Assange could not clear his name without risking persecution, the British government used this to deflect from its violation of international law and falsely accused Assange of obstructing justice.  However, it was not Assange obstructing justice but those applying the law:  obstructing the investigation that might end the sexual allegations,  obstructing any route for Assange to leave the embassy without threat to his life through extradition, an erosion of the law.  All the while the government squandering millions on surveillance outside the Ecuadorian embassy.

The possibility of extradition to the US was kept going for years, while the British and Swedish governments stalled  the investigation and kept a European arrest warrant live, waiting for an opportunity to extradite Assange.  After the Swedish investigation was dropped in 2017 the British government continued squandering taxes on covert surveillance sitting in wait to catch Assange.  And now that he has been betrayed by the government of Ecuador which has provided such opportunity, the British government continues to drive the false narrative that Assange is a fugitive and must face justice:

…it is absolutely right that Assange will face justice in the proper way in the UK (Alan Duncan)

What justice is Duncan referring to? The only prosecutable crime under British law applicable to Assange on 11th April 2019 was skipping bail seven years ago, a charge De Zayas does not credit:

The skipping bail charge is frivolous and does not deserve any respect by UK courts.

Duncan is not referring to British justice but deferring to US government for which the UK authorities have been operating since 2010, resulting in the erosion of law and a betrayal of British sovereignty.

Contrary to receiving justice,  Assange is now facing continued violation of his human rights. The UK is failing to meet the conditions set by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention under  Articles 7, 9, 10 and 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, summarised in the UN Human Rights press release as:

The Working Group maintains that the arbitrary detention of Mr. Assange should be brought to an end, that his physical integrity and freedom of movement be respected, and that he should be entitled to an enforceable right to compensation

De Zayas explains:

according to the principle “ubi ius, ibi remedium” –where there is law, there is a remedy — any violation of law requires reparation and rehabilitation.  Thus both UK and Sweden are still obliged to make reparation which could easily be by releasing him immediately.  Reparation need not be only monetary.  His rights were violated by the UK and the UK has the power to release him. 

Comments like Duncan’s are meant to suggest good governance; the rule of law is implemented to keep us safe so we can trust the government.  But the world is watching Britain’s politicised use of its legal system, and pressure will now be put upon the British government to reject the US extradition request that would likely end in persecution for Assange.

The role of British diplomacy in the war on Assange

Alan Duncan, Minister for Europe and Americas, apparently spent months working out a deal with the US and Ecuador over Assange.  On 11th April Ecuador’s president, Moreno,   stripped Assange of his Ecuadorian citizenship and asylum status, in violation of Ecuadorian constitutional law – Assange was granted citizenship in 2017.   As pretexts for Assange’s ‘exit’ Moreno used propaganda narratives and smear campaigns.  He then invited UK police into the embassy to arrest him.  It is believed that Moreno was motivated by 2 essential events: hand over Assange or have a $4 billion plus IMF loan vetoed by Washington, and revenge for the circulation by Wikileaks of  information implicating him in a corruption scandal with offshore company INA.

The role played by Alan Duncan in enabling Moreno to deliver Assange up for US extradition could be described as  that of a ‘middle man’ in a sleazy deal, how British soft power seems to work.  Duncan’s use of diplomatic power has undermined international human rights.  This is not new to Duncan, whose diplomatic office, like much of the British government, is subservient to US political agenda.  In 2011 he was involved with a ‘White Hall’ cell engineering passage of oil to jihadists in Libya when Britain  joined the US and France in overthrowing Gaddafi.   He is supporting the attempted coup by the far right Washington-backed Juan Guaido against the democratically elected Maduro government of Venezuela.  He also recently rejected a decision by the International Court of Justice that the UK must end its administration of Chagos Arhipelago so that it can be decolonized.  UK diplomacy, in the hands of people such as Duncan,  is leading to chaos and the erosion of law, and most likely eventual diplomatic isolation for the UK.  Duncan’s plotting with unprincipled and corrupt leaders to subvert human rights mechanisms should be condemned:

Any comments made by Duncan regarding no death penalty assurances on extradition are for PR purposes.  Assange is protected under international law as de Zayas explains:

Julian Assange cannot be extradited to the United States, because such an extradition would violate a jus cogens principle of international law – the rule of non-refoulement. Assange has the right to protection under the Geneva Refugee Convention and cannot be sent to any country where he would be subject to persecution, which is clearly what the US is doing.

Duncan’s assurances are designed to appear as good governance, the face of civilisation.  This should not fool us:  extraditing Assange with a guarantee of no death sentence would still violate international law as the risk of persecution is very high, a principle also made clear by the UN special rapporteur on torture Nils Melzer:

In my assessment, if Mr. Assange were to be expelled from the Embassy of Ecuador, he is likely to be arrested by British authorities and extradited to the United States…Such a response could expose him to a real risk of serious violations of his human rights, including his freedom of expression, his right to a fair trial and the prohibition of cruel, inhuman or or degrading treatment or punishment.

Duncan’s humanitarian concerns about the death sentence designed to gain public trust should not distract us from what is clearly a further attempt at politicising the law, this time through the UK-US extradition treaty The exploitation of such a mechanism by the British government is a further erosion of the law.

We must see that our courts are not subservient to the US, that our judges can respect decisions made by the United Nations regarding human rights, and that they can condemn politicised use of law by government.  The rulings against Assange by the British courts to-date indicate that extraterritoriality of US ‘justice’ is here, or how else do we explain why British judges have enabled the government’s war on Assange for nearly ten years.  It appears this war is not just about press freedom, but integrity of our institutions which are supposed to promote democracy and civilisation. De Zayas warns:

It is most regrettable when countries ostensibly committed to democracy, the rule of law, and human rights betray all of these values.  It is shocking that the mainstream press allows it to happen.  Unconscionable when civil society becomes complicit through its silence.  The US, UK, Sweden and Ecuador have been on a rampage against the rule of law — and this also harms the credibility of international law.

We are witnessing a revolt against international standards by multiple countries — US, UK, Sweden, Ecuador.  

Assange’s body – a tool for persecution

Parallels could be drawn between the British government’s policy towards Assange’s health and the US economic violence towards Venezuela – imposing devastating restrictions while offering token aid – the carrot and the stick designed to wear down the target while at the same time securing public opinion by gesturing humanitarianism.   But the ultimate goal is submission and the strategy is blackmail.

If Assange had left the embassy to receive medical care he would not have made it to a doctor or hospital; he would have been arrested immediately. The situation was described in a 2015 psycho-social medical report detailing Assange’s living conditions, the effects of the massive police surveillance on him (he was in effect ‘under seige,‘), incidents that occured leaving him in a state of anxiety, and the long-term effects of arbitrary detention.

The  weaponising of his deteriorating health is described by Dr Sondra Crosby, a specialist in refugee health care, who assessed Assange in February this year.  Crosby condemned the way physical and mental suffering  has been inflicted by the British government that promised to arrest him should he leave the embassy for treatment urgently needed.  She believed this amounted to a violation of articles 1 and 16 of the 1984 Convention Against Torture and asked Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to intervene.  De Zayas believes Bachelet’s intervention is now essential:

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, should speak out.  But the silence is deafening. She should demand compliance with the 2016 judgement of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the rehabilitation of Assange and immediate protection of his life and health.

The dehumanising of Assange through the British Media 

Much has now been written on the treatment of Assange by British mainstream media.  It has approached reporting on Assange the same way it has any of the British invasions and wars it has supported, circulating propaganda designed to inspire hatred and prejudice, manufacturing consent for violence and oppression.

We should loathe Assange for his pride, his ingratitude and meddling, his treachery, his spying, his skateboarding, how he treated his cat.  Following his arrest the BBC provided Moreno a platform to claim Assange smeared faeces on the embassy walls.  The ultimate dehumanization of Assange reduced to an animal or a lunatic.  The purpose of this is to win our apathy so he can be got rid of and we will agree to the erosion of the law and the criminalisation of journalism and whistle blowers, and the politicising of the courts in subservience to US ‘justice’.

But we cannot agree to that.  This war on Assange by the British government is really a war on us all.  It is an abuse of institutions, of the spirit of the law, of civil rights achievements.  The British government is behaving in a violent and authoritarian manner behind a mask of ‘civilised rule of law,’ that must be exposed and rejected.

 

Julian Assange and the 7 year old Swedish Arrest Warrant that ended in ‘Not on the cards’ to interview.

This article was published in July 2019 in 21st Century Wire

Swedish prosecutors have this week announced that for the time being they will not be issuing a European Investigation Order (EIO) to interview Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks.  According to Sweden’s Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions,  Eva-Marie Persson,”…it is currently not on the cards to issue a European investigation order…” For now, they will be analysing evidence before making a decision regarding procedure. So, how is it possible she is now not in a position to interview him – yet two months ago she requested his detention so that she could issue a European Arrest Warrant (EAW) against him and start an extradition process?

If Swedish prosecutors are to follow through with this latest investigation attempt, it will have been the third time that Assange will have been interviewed by Swedish authorities for what is essentially the same inquiry. If Persson is not in a position to proceed with an EIO, how can it have been practical or proportionate for her in May to have pursued his detention for the purpose of extraditing him to Sweden from the UK?  According to the 2014 legislation by the European Court of Justice, authorities not in a position to prosecute do not require an EAW, but should carry out investigation through an investigation order.  In fact, a Swedish court called the Swedish prosecutor’s request for Assange’s detention disproportionate and refused to grant it on June 3rd, suggesting that at least some judges and authorities are deferring to the European Court regarding EAW issuance and proportionality.

It simply does not make sense that one minute it’s full steam ahead with talk about arrest and extradition and the next, ‘Well, we’ll keep you posted.’  Is this how the Swedish prosecuting authority works?  Or is that how it works for Julian Assange? There is only one logical conclusion from the latest development:  the Swedish prosecutors were not in a position to prosecute Assange yet attempted to have him extradited anyway. This surely makes a mockery of the attempts by human rights organisations and the European Court to stop the ongoing abuse of the EAW.

How can they claim they needed to start procedures for extradition while at the same time have no immediate intention to interview?  Is it not the case that this type of calculated misuse of the EAW back in 2010, followed by an obstructive application of the law is what led to Assange being held in arbitrary detention in the Ecuadorian embassy for seven years? Again, Swedish authorities failed to interview him for years while hanging the threat of extradition over him, a situation which was ruled on by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD) as de facto incarceration.

How “not on the cards to issue a European Investigation Order” for an interview compares to the British Courts’ decision to extradite Assange to Sweden for prosecution:

It should be remembered that the British courts ruled on the 2010 EAW against Assange, and agreed to extradite him.  One of the deciding factors in their decision was that the Swedish prosecutors issued the EAW in order to prosecute, not just interview him. In 2012 he lost his final appeal after which time fled to the Ecuadorian embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden, fearing he would then be extradited on to the US where he believed he was wanted for his role in exposing US war crimes, a fear now known to be true. Yet, within the last few weeks a Swedish court has ruled that a new EAW against Assange would be disproportionate, while the prosecutor involved is currently unprepared to interview him.  Therefore, recent events clearly vindicate Assange’s defence during his previous appeal: they indicate the 2010 EAW against him was for an interview, and not a prosecution, therefore, the British courts were wrong. In effect, the courts legitimised the overt abuse of the EAW. If justice were now to be applied fair and evenly, then Assange would be due compensation and remedy for this injustice, as indicated in the UNWGAD statement.

Flexing Swedish Muscle through Mainstream Media 

The very same prosecuting services that invited every Tom, Dick and Harry reporter in mainstream media and put on a full media spectacular to announce the re-opening of the investigation against Assange has announced its latest step in a statement on its website.  When the opportunity arises to showcase Sweden’s role in bringing down Assange, bring on the pressers, but when the world discovers an alternative narrative – an incompetent or most likely compromised prosecuting authority, then suddenly a statement appears on their website.

Here was the media extravaganza showing Sweden flexing muscle over Assange:

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It should also be noted that the absence of this story in mainstream media is also by design. Reuters and a couple of outlets mentioned the back-tracking, but the silence in British media is once again deafening, particularly when the cracks in their narrative are exposed.

We wait to see the next steps by the Swedish prosecuting authorities, which, according to the website statement, will be August at the earliest.

Whatever they decide to do, the significance that a request for an EIO is not currently “on the cards” should not be lost – because it has already cost Julian Assange nine years of his life.

Assange in Solitary Confinement: the Breach of Prison Rules

This article was published in 21st Century Wire

January 2020

The sustained violation of the human rights of Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, has been carried out in full view of the world while he has been arbitrarily detained in HMP Belmarsh.    Until now, condemnation of his treatment and pleas to end his suffering have been met with denial and silence by the British authorities.  But the announcement this week that Assange has been moved out of Belmarsh healthcare, where he has been detained in solitary confinement since May,  is a sign that the campaign to stop his persecution is having effect.  What is also of importance is that the involvement of prisoners in securing Assange’s release from solitary confinement suggests that within the walls of Belmarsh it is understood that healthcare has been weaponized. 

Moving Assange from solitary confinement shows a shift from the position that solitary confinement does not exist 

Until now the British authorities have not only denied that Assange has been detained in solitary confinement, but that solitary confinement is not practised in British prisons.   Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) has been sending out letters in response to the influx of complaints it has received for months against the abuse of Assange.  In its response it refuses to address his case and produces a list of standards and laws written for the protection of prisoners as evidence he is in safe hands.  However, anyone who has followed the continued arbitrary detention of Assange in Belmarsh will know he has been placed effectively outside the reach of laws and standards; even access to his lawyers and legal documents, protected by  statutory prisoner rights, have been harshly restricted, crippling preparation for his defence in a case of historical significance.

The HMPPS claim that “…prisoners are not detained in solitary confinement...”  could only be made after dismissing statements by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer, that Assange has been held in solitary confinement, in violation of international law:

Blanket statements of how the UK cares for all prisoners could only be made by ignoring the decision by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, that Assange is being arbitrarily detained, in violation of international law.

What’s more, the dismissal of solitary confinement as a falsehood must surely undermine the work by prison charities and scholars in law and prisons which attempts to shed light on the consequences of solitary confinement including ill-health and suicide.

The HMPPS letter can be viewed as a public relations exercise designed to promote the image of good governance,  but behind this it uses the same strategy practised by the government when called upon to answer for its abuse of Assange: denial and silence.

Solitary Confinement – Nothing to see here

Nils Melzer has condemned the mistreatment of Assange, which he has measured against the UN’s definition of solitary confinement under the Standard Minimum Rules.  Until now, Assange has been locked in a cell alone for over 22 hours a day and deprived of association with other prisoners for several months.   This is in breach of both the European Prison Rules and the British government’s own prison inspectorate human rights standards

There is clear consensus in human rights standards that all prisoners, including those in segregation or cellular confinement, should have at least one hour of outside exercise in the open air every day (SMR 23.1; EPR 27; CPT 2nd General Report). This should be in addition to time spent in association with other prisoners (EPR 25.2, 27.7; CPT 2nd General Report)See also standards relating to solitary confinement (SMR 43.1, 44, 45). See also Expectation 10 and related human rights references.”

As can be seen, the inspectorate standards refer to the same laws identified by Melzer to condemn the mistreatment of Assange.   For anyone doubting whether a prison healthcare unit or any other building associated with care could hold people in solitary confinement, the prison charity Penal Reform makes this clear:

“… when a prisoner is confined to a cell for 22 hours or more, that constitutes solitary confinement, regardless of the reason for this confinement or its name.”

The prison ombudsman also confirms the fact that solitary confinement is not dependent on location:

“Segregated conditions are also sometimes applied outside of segregation units. Prisoners can be kept on the wing, but locked in their cells for the most of the day, and taken to shower and exercise separately from other prisoners on the wing.”  

Here the ombudsman is referring to official segregations, but could be describing Assange’s daily regime in Belmarsh over a period of several months, according to reports.

So what is the difference between official segregation where prisoners are detained in solitary confinement and the solitary confinement that until this week has been imposed upon Assange while in Belmarsh healthcare?

Official segregation is allowed under prison rule 45 (segregation units allowed under rule 46).  It states that the removal of a prisoner from association can be enforced:

“45.—(1) Where it appears desirable, for the maintenance of good order or discipline or in his own interests, that a prisoner should not associate with other prisoners, either generally or for particular purposes, the governor may arrange for the prisoner’s removal from association accordingly.

(2) A prisoner shall not be removed under this rule for a period of more than 3 days without the authority of a member of the board of visitors or of the Secretary of State. An authority given under this paragraph shall be for a period not exceeding one month, but may be renewed from month to month”

There is therefore a legal framework designed to justify segregating individual prisoners.  It is also designed to make the authorities accountable.   But by being held in unofficial segregation, Assange has been excluded from the rules and may have been worse off than if he had been officially segregated:

“The regime for segregated prisoners (under Prison Rule 45 (YOI 49)) should be as full as possible and only those activities that involve associating with mainstream prisoners should be curtailed.” – SEG PSO

In Assange’s case his movements have been so severely restricted that he has barely had access to his lawyers, leading them to declare that they are “on the brink of a judicial review“.   It was reported at Assange’s case hearing on 13th January that since 19th December he had had just 2 hours with his legal team to go over evidence.  Such restrictions are severely hindering his defence preparation, despite the fact he is facing a 175 year prison sentence in a high security prison in the US if extradited.  It is important to contrast this with the way Belmarsh treated Tommy Robinson (real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon – founder of the English Defence League) last year while he was officially segregated inside Belmarsh, convicted of a civil offence.  In his case the governor was reported to have personally intervened to ensure he did not miss a social visit.  On the surface Belmarsh’s efforts to dot the i’s and cross the t’s for Robinson appears to have been a tactical approach to appease his supporters.  In stark contrast, Assange, who as an unconvicted prisoner has more statutory rights than Robinson had, is effectively denied access to justice.  Therefore, when the HMPPS tells us that certain prisoner rights  “…are not subject to change or limitation according to the  profile or details of any individual prisoner’s case…”  we see that rights do not need to be changed or limited to disproportionately punish one individual: all that is needed is for them to be applied arbitrarily.

And what were the implications of solitary confinement on Assange’s health?  Melzer visited Assange in Belmarsh prison in May last year,  with 2 medical experts specialising in the examination of potential victims of torture.  They carried out extensive assessments and Melzer described Assange’s condition as showing:

“… all the symptoms that are typical for a person that has been exposed to prolonged psychological torture…the evidence was overwhelmingly clear that Julian Assange had been exposed to several forms of cruel and degrading treatment which accumulatively can only be described as psychological torture.”

This raises the question that given the extreme mental and emotional distress experienced by Assange, as diagnosed by 2 experienced medical specialists and a UN rapporteur, did Belmarsh show any consideration of Assange’s condition when it inflicted a regime of indefinite solitary confinement on him?   Do his prison records show the level of consideration of the effects of solitary confinement on his health in the way that records for officially segregated prisoners are supposed to show?

No recourse to law in unofficial segregation

The official segregation of a prisoner is subject to a range of procedures as set out by Prison service order 1700.  According to the rule books, had Assange been held in official segregation for seven months, he would have been the subject of regular board reviews, and regular visits from the Independent Monitoring Board and the governor.  In theory he would have been the focus of a multi-disciplinary review system assessing the effects of solitary confinement on his health.   But it would appear that until now he has been left to rot  unaccountably for months in solitary confinement by the prison authorities.  Now,  due to the support of prisoners inside Belmarsh, and Assange’s legal team and campaigners, he has been moved to a wing where he can mix with other prisoners.  This is a victory for Assange and also for those in a place where, in view of the state’s treatment of Assange, unofficial segregation could conceivably be imposed upon anyone, anywhere and any time.

The fact that the British authorities have been held to account by a group of prisoners objecting to the mistreatment of an individual prisoner who happens to be the same prisoner recognised by the UN as being arbitrarily detained by the British government must not go unnoticed.  Neither should we under-estimate the significance that this group of prisoners, as part of a wider growing campaign,  has made gains to bring about fairness for Assange despite the best efforts of the prison authorities and the courts to silence him.

 

 

 

 

 

The Health of Julian Assange: A Case of State-sponsored Neglect

February 2020

Nils Melzer, UN Special Rapporteur on torture,  has explained how the assaults on the ability of Julian Assange, found of Wikileaks, to prepare his legal defence, are designed to create a sense of powerlessness and helplessness: the purpose of torture.  This piece focuses on the arbitrary treatment of Assange by the prison authorities and asks how those state institutions claiming to protect health and well-being of people held inside the UK prison system have stood by and allowed a prisoner to be tortured in full public view.

It is known that Assange’s removal from  Belmarsh healthcare was a result of the combined effort by his legal team, public campaigning and the efforts by prison inmates. It followed seven months of unofficial segregation in the unit during which he was removed from association without legitimate motive and in breach of prison rules and legislation.  There was no established reason for this treatment, making it arbitrary, and it deprived Assange of recourse, effectively throwing him into a lawless hole at the whim of the prison authorities.  It should be noted, however, that despite the fact he has been transferred out of healthcare to a wing where he can associate with others,  reports  indicate that he is still locked up for most of the time.

The full force of the state apparatus is constantly targeted at Assange while others just pass through

To further show the arbitrary and unfair treatment of Assange,  comparisons can be made to the way Belmarsh has treated him to the way it treated Tommy Robinson, founder of the English Defence League, when Robinson spent nine weeks there last year, officially segregated.  In his case the governor was said to have personally intervened to ensure he did not miss a social visit, and he had unlimited phone calls between 9am and 11am every morning.  However, Assange, an unconvicted prisoner, presumed innocent,  has had devastating restrictions of access to his lawyers, was not allowed possession of his legal documents for a prolonged period of time, or the means with which to prepare his defence – all breaches of legislation protecting the rights of the prisoner.

Comparisons can be made in the way Belmarsh treated multi-millionaire novelist and former Tory MP Lord Jeffrey Archer.  Archer was sentenced to 4 years in 2001 for perjury and perverting the course of justice.  In contrast to Assange, Archer was convicted by a jury.  Archer, who remains Lord Archer, was processed as a prisoner through Belmarsh in textbook fashion. Belmarsh, despite being a Category A high security prison, is also a local prison serving courts in South East London and South West Essex,  and is used as a temporary stop for prisoners of all categories.   Usually, after a few months or weeks, men are released or moved to other prisons (more suitable for their category).  According to Archer’s memoirs, on his arrival at Belmarsh following his sentencing, he was visited by the deputy governor who made this whole process clear,  reassuring him that normal procedure should for him mean a short stay:

You will be moved onto an induction block tomorrow,’ she assures me, ‘and just as soon as you’ve been categorized A, B, C, or D, we’ll transfer you to another prison. I have no doubt you’ll be Category D – no previous convictions, and no history of violence.’

Due to procedure, he spent his first night in the healthcare unit under suicide watch.  Although only there for one day, Archer was allowed to use the general exercise area, and mix with the other inmates.  He was then moved from healthcare to a wing, and after 3 weeks he was moved to a category D prison.  Textbook processing.

But on arrival at Belmarsh Assange had no record of violence, or previous convictions,  and the offence of skipping a police bail for which Judge Deborah Taylor sentenced him to 50 weeks –  ignoring the UN decision that he sought asylum – is a minor offence, much less serious than the crimes of Archer.  Yet Assange, made a B category prisoner, has never left Belmarsh prison and was unofficially segregated for months.  He has been denied basic rights as an unconvicted prisoner since being held on remand, including continued restrictions of access to his lawyers; he is treated like a terrorist and murderer.  By looking at the way the prison authorities processed Archer we can again see the exceptional vitriol and impunity of the authorities towards Assange.

Diversion tactics of the prison authorities and the lack of accountability for Assange’s health

As has been illustrated, the prison authorities’ response to public complaints about the mistreatment of Assange ignores the statements by Melzer that Assange has been held in solitary confinement in healthcare.

In the same way the authorities have ignored Melzer’s findings following his extensive physical and psychological assessments of Assange last May, which revealed:

“Mr. Assange showed all symptoms typical for prolonged and sustained exposure to severe psychological stress, anxiety and related mental and emotional suffering in an environment highly conducive to major depressive and post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD)…

Melzer clearly identified the cause of the symptoms:

It was obvious that Mr. Assange’s health has been seriously affected by the extremely hostile and arbitrary environment he has been exposed to for many years,” … “Most importantly, in addition to physical ailments, Mr. Assange showed all symptoms typical for prolonged exposure to psychological torture, including extreme stress, chronic anxiety and intense psychological trauma.

He warned that Assange’s health could deteriorate dramatically in the event of his extradition or similar major stressors:

“…and that his current condition is likely to deteriorate dramatically, with severe and long-term psychological and social sequels, in the event of prolonged exposure to significant additional stressors, such as those expected to arise in the event of his extradition to the United States or any other country refusing to provide guarantees against refoulement to the United States.”

As his reports and appeals to the UK government were effectively dismissed, Melzer issued a further statement to the government in October, warning that Assange’s continued arbitrary detention in oppressive conditions could put his life at risk:

“Based on the information made available to me, the detention regime currently imposed on Mr. Assange appears to be unnecessary, disproportionate, and discriminatory and to perpetuate his exposure to psychological torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. I am very concerned that, if the UK does not take urgent remedial measures to alleviate Mr. Assange’s situation, his health may soon reach a critical stage, including the risk of death.”

Yet it would appear that none of the authorities involved in the health or care of prisoners has responded.  Not only that, they seem to have also ignored the repeated appeals to the government by a global collective of doctors, Doctors 4 Assange, for independent assessment and treatment.  The doctors have asked for:

“…urgent expert medical assessment of both his physical and psychological state of health. Any medical treatment indicated should be administered in a properly equipped and expertly staffed university teaching hospital (tertiary care). Were such urgent assessment and treatment not to take place, we have real concerns, on the evidence currently available, that Mr Assange could die in prison. The medical situation is thereby urgent.”

So how has it come to pass that the medical findings and concerns of a UN special rapporteur and the concerns expressed by a global network of doctors, regarding the life of a prisoner, have been readily dismissed? This question is especially important given UK prison rule 21:

Special illnesses and conditions

21.—(1) The medical officer or a medical practitioner such as is mentioned in rule 20(3) shall report to the governor on the case of any prisoner whose health is likely to be injuriously affected by continued imprisonment or any conditions of imprisonment. The governor shall send the report to the Secretary of State without delay, together with his own recommendations.

(2) The medical officer or a medical practitioner such as is mentioned in rule 20(3) shall pay special attention to any prisoner whose mental condition appears to require it, and make any special arrangements which appear necessary for his supervision or care.

A thorough report was sent to the government by Melzer in May,  and a second statement was sent in October, making the urgency of Assange’s health needs clearly known.  The question must therefore be asked: how is it that not a single health or care institution charged with the health of prisoners has intervened?

The state’s accountability in the neglect of Assange’s care

In its response to the public concerns about Assange’s health, the prison authorities have attempted to divert attention onto the NHS:

“On the wider issue of matters of public health, the Ministry of Justice is not responsible for the commissioning of healthcare services in public prisons as this is the responsibility of NHS England and the Welsh Government. The commitment to working with health and justice partners is set out in the National Partnership Agreement for Prison Healthcare in England…” 

The partnership agreement to which the prison authorities refer,  is an agreement between five public bodies which include the Ministry of Justice, the Prison and Probation Service, the Department of Health and Social Care, Public Health England and NHS England.  It uses the words ‘partnership’ and ‘collaboration’ to illustrate that each body has a commitment and responsibility to safeguard the health of prisoners:

“We commit to collaborate and co-operate at all levels within our organisations to achieve our shared priorities and deliver our joint workplan.”

So, how is it possible to reconcile the joint commitment by no less than five public institutions to protect the health of prisoners, with the arbitrary treatment that threatens the life of Assange inside Belmarsh, as made public knowledge by a UN special rapporteur and a global network of doctors?

In an interview published in 21st Century Wire,  GP and Producer of the ‘Great NHS Heist,Bob Gill,  commented on the way the authorities have behaved towards Assange and the risks to his health resulting from this.

How is it possible that Nils Melzer, supported by specialist doctors, identified JA’s specific needs and made specific recommendations, yet these were ignored by the authorities? Should the fact that Melzer and the accompanying specialists were not part of the partnership make any difference to whether Assange’s identified needs should be met?

The prison authorities and health providers are hiding procedural complexities to justify the unjustifiable. JA has not been convicted of a crime. He finds himself in a maximum security prison for exposing the crimes of the state. He is a political prisoner and his treatment is designed to be an example to others who are considering reporting the actions of our leaders. I am in no doubt that under such circumstances the prison administration will not extend JA the humane treatment he should be receiving.

After years of confinement in the Ecuadorian embassy for fear of extradition to USA for his journalism, then to be dragged out of the embassy into a police van breaching established political asylum protocol and ending up in Belmarsh a series of actions which confirm his fear all along of being persecuted for serving the public interest.

The deeply flawed legal process and his retention in custody to this day amount to intolerable levels of psychological trauma which would inevitably have major health impact on anyone. Leaderships of public bodies implicated in this sorry affair will remain loyal to their paymasters and not truth or justice. If individuals within Belmarsh acted out of conscience and revealed the extent of JAs mental and physical condition, they would suffer retribution. The NHS has an appalling record for its treatment of whistlblowers and bullying and harassment of staff is endemic as highlighted in the recent report in the Mirror.  Hence any reassurances from the authorities are worthless. The only reliable assessment of JAs condition would be from external, independent sources of which Nils Meltzer is a respected voice.

It is impossible to know what went on regarding internal discussions between the health care provider and the prison management while JA was in healthcare.  But it was a regime decision to keep him isolated, not a medical one.  But how do you see the position of the NHS here?  Many people have written to the Director of NHS England, Lord David Prior, to complain about Assange’s treatment. As the NHS is a partner should it be held to account to some degree for what has happened to Assange while held in isolation in the healthcare unit?

The reports from Nils Melzer are deeply concerning but come as no surprise. Deprivation of liberty, lack of due process, character assassination, threat of extradition and solitary confinement are grossly disproportionate consequences for the allegations made against JA. The effects of such treatment have devastating effects on mental health and functioning. Chronic stress, poor living conditions, lack of sunlight and human companionship have serious negative physical effects on the body ranging from accelerated cardiovascular disease and neurological deterioration. Given these obvious impacts on JAs health, it is remarkable that his authorised medical personnel have failed to identify the harms his continued detention are having. The prison regime have consciously decided to continue with JAs torture by not supporting his immediate release from Belmarsh. The NHS and prison management should be held to account for their actions but there seems little chance of this given all normal processes have been ignored in the treatment of JA for political reasons

We know that prisoners were so concerned about JA’s treatment that they kept up a campaign to have him removed from effective segregation conditions.  It is reasonable therefore to assume that members of staff may also have concerns.  However, staff are forced to sign the official secrets act and cannot report concerns publicly.  They would have to go through internal channels.  To publicly show concern would be to risk imprisonment – regardless of employer – whether the prison service or the NHS. Would this be a fair assessment of the situation faced by healthcare staff?

NHS staff in non-prison setting risk retribution if their actions flag up concerns about the performance of their employer. Protections that exist are not fit for purpose and managers can act with impunity as demonstrated with various scandals exposed over the years from Mid Staffs scandal to Gosport. No action taken against the leaders that failed. The additional fear of prosecution for breach of the OSA effectively prevents the abuses of prisoners being made public by staff. Until and unless people can speak out without fear of retribution, institutional abuse will go unchecked.

The UK prison rules state that remand prisoners cannot be released temporarily for medical reasons – the logic being that they will not be remanded for long and so can simply have use of doctors until they are convicted or freed.  However, in JA’s case, he could be remanded for years.  UK prison rules have a provision that should cover this, but like so many others, could be applied arbitrarily to Assange. 

The adherence to the rules for remand prisoners’ access to external medical treatment in JAs case is perverse. An exception should be made in JAs case given the years of torment he has already endured. Hiding behind procedure under circumstances where we hear of credible fears for JAs life, is yet another demonstration of the inhumanity of his continued imprisonment and the authorities complicity in his continued torture.

The UK treats Assange the way Bahrain treats its political prisoners

Despite the fact that the authorities impose regimes and rules,  all members of the partnership claim commitment to the health and well-being of prisoners.  What’s more, the group claims repeatedly to be focused on identifying specific needs of prisoners:

“People in prisons have complex needs.  We are committed to understanding the factors that impact on health and social care outcomes for people in prison. This includes understanding specific needs

Melzer’s report identified Assange’s specific needs clearly.   Yet these were ignored by all five institutions which claim to “…recognise our respective statutory responsibilities and independence,…” 

Not only have they failed to recognise Assange’s health needs identified by Melzer’s report, they have stayed silent while Melzer has brought attention to the continued arbitrary treatment of Assange by the prison authorities and the detrimental and life-threatening effects of this on his health.  These warnings have all been circulated by Melzer in the public forum and officially in his correspondence to the UK government.  Still, they have failed to recognise their respective statutory responsibilities. This failure and apparent complicity by the state health and care systems takes us back to the recommendations made by Melzer in May:

“Both medical experts accompanying my visit agreed that Mr. Assange is in urgent need of treatment by a psychiatrist of his own choice and confidence, whom he does not associate with the detaining authorities,…”

The sustained silence by each member of the partnership demonstrates that Assange’s health and life are not  protected by the state health and care institutions connected to Belmarsh. Whatever the efforts of individuals on the front line, those in charge at government level are towing the line and in doing so are protecting the impunity and vitriol the prison authorities have shown towards Assange.  By ignoring the warnings from the UN rapporteur of risks to Assange’s life surely they have shown an abnegation of responsibility and allowed state-sponsored abuse.  The recent appeal from Doctors 4 Assange warns that complicity by the public health and care institutions in the neglect of Assange could set a dangerous precedent:

“…governments have sidelined medical ethics, medical authority, and the human right to health.   This politicisation of foundational medical principles is of grave concern to us, as it carries implications beyond the case of Assange. Abuse by politically motivated medical neglect sets a dangerous precedent, whereby the medical profession can be manipulated as a political tool, ultimately undermining our profession’s impartiality, commitment to health for all, and obligation to do no harm.”

The UK has, in theory, committed to the UN standards for the treatment of prisoners.  Yet where Assange is concerned, it is behaving no differently from the way Bahrain, a Gulf State dictatorship, treats many of its political prisoners – by refusing to recognise their arbitrary detention, by ignoring identified health needs, and by refusing access to specialist diagnostic assessment and treatment.

Bob Gill’s Great NHS Heist can be watched here

 

 

 

Assange and the British Authorities’ Arbitrary Application of Standard Interview Procedures: Sweden versus Spain

November 2019

It has been well documented how the UK police, prosecuting services, courts and prisons have squandered untold resources on one individual who jumped a police bail seven years ago.  Search a little deeper and we see countless precedents have been set in the wake of a hunting expedition that is now slowly publicly killing a journalist who upset powerful states.  The recent attempt to block a Spanish judge from interviewing Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, suggests that the United Kingdom Central Authority (UKCA) is continuing the State’s assault on Assange as he fights extradition to the US for exposing its war crimes. 

According to the Spanish daily newspaper El Pais, the (UKCA) has provisionally denied a request by a Spanish judge to question Assange about allegations that the Spanish security firm Undercover Global S.L spied on him while he was in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.  Judge Jose de la Mata has asked to interview Assange via video link and has issued a European investigation order (EIO).  The case concerns the role of David Morales, director of the firm, accused of passing surveillance material, including surveillance of Assange’s confidential meetings with his lawyers, directly to the CIA.

Some of the grounds for the UK refusal are that UK police carry out these types of interviews, that videoconferencing is not available to hear witness statements, and that the jurisdiction is unclear.  El Pais points out that the British response is unprecedented in these types of requests for standard judicial collaboration.

The implications of CIA involvement in spying on Assange were made clear by Assange’s lawyer, Mark Summers, at Assange’s court hearing on 21st October, when he stated:

The American state has been actively engaged in intruding on privileged discussions between Mr Assange and his lawyer.”

Such a violation of Assange’s rights should be enough to end the US extradition attempt.  The refusal by the UK to comply in what should be a standard procedure can therefore be viewed as an attempt to protect the ability of the US to extradite him.  The dismissal by magistrate Vanessa Baraitser of Summers’ plea to allow more time to prepare for Assange’s February extradition hearing, given the significance of the Spanish case, is a further demonstration that the UK has a set agenda.  US violations of human rights and law are not being allowed to get in the way of extradition, to which end Assange is being denied due process and the ability to defend himself inside the UK.

If we want further proof of a biased and politically driven UK agenda regarding the treatment of Assange, we can draw upon the different ways the UK responds to requests from states depending on whether the requests are expected to result in his criminalisation and end or in his vindication and freedom.

With this in mind, how does the UK’s response to De la Mata compare to its responses to the Swedish Prosecution Authority (SPA),  and how is the UK likely to respond should the SPA ever issue a European investigation order to interview Assange?

UK collaboration: Sweden

In May the SPA  reopened the sexual allegations case against Assange for the third time.  The Deputy Chief Prosecutor, Eva-Marie Persson, despite claiming in July that it was not on the cards to interview Assange, attempted in May to have him detained in order to start an extradition process to Sweden from the UK.  This was rejected by a Swedish court in June, on the basis it was ‘disproportionate.’  Persson’s latest statement was released on the SPA website on 9th September:

‘“During the summer, we have conducted interviews intended to verify the evidence, as nine years have passed since the suspected crime. We have concentrated on the inquiries possible to conduct here in Sweden. The interviews are now being transcribed and analysed. We have mainly re-interviewed those individuals who were interviewed in 2010, although two of the persons interviewed have not previously been interviewed,” says Deputy Director of Public Prosecution Eva-Marie Persson.

Once we have analysed the interviews, I will decide how to proceed with the case. The investigation may then be discontinued or I may decide to conduct further inquiries. If I make the assessment that the next step is to interview Julian Assange, I will issue a European Investigation Order, in which case I shall write to the British authorities with a request to conduct an interview,”’

Such steps to conduct an interview were appropriate in 2010. It was the SPA’s obstructive delaying and failure to bring any investigation forward while holding a European arrest warrant  over him that formed part of the 2015 United Nation Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNGWAD) decision that Assange was being held in arbitrary detention.

It has been shown, through freedom of information requests made by journalist Stefania Maurizi of La Repubblica,  that a principal reason behind the delay by the Swedish prosecutors was the resistance by the UK Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), over a period of years, to Assange being questioned inside the UK and its insistence, instead, that he should be extradited to Sweden.  The following passage was published by Maurizi in 2017:

‘The emails provided by SPA leave no room for doubt that the CPS advised Ny against questioning Assange in London from the very start: “My earlier advice remains, that in my view it would not be prudent for the Swedish authorities to try to interview the defendant in the UK”, CPS lawyer Paul Close wrote to Ny…’

Maurizi’s findings show that the UK authorities resisted standard practice and pressed for extradition.  This was despite the fact that extradition for interview was disproportionate and excessive, as  explained by the global criminal justice watch dog Fair Trials in 2010, and that other proper and normal approaches for  interview were available, including travel to the UK by the SPA or use of a video link.  The law was changed in 2014 to bar extradition if there is no prosecution decision in the requesting country, but Assange’s warrant was kept going.

Only after a Swedish appeals court criticised the  SPA in 2015 for its lack of progress did it agree to interview Assange in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, and it was the  SPA that interviewed him; the interview was not conducted by the British police.  The case was then dropped.

In stark contrast to the way it applied procedure while collaborating with the SPA, the UK authorities now claim it is the role of the police to conduct interviews, and therefore access to Assange by De la Mata can be blocked.  This is despite the fact the ability of De la Mata to interview Assange through videoconference is shown under law enforced in the UK in 2017.  What must be recognised is that the lack of standard interview practice in 2010, and the insistence of police interview to block De la Mata now in 2019, are both by design: this arbitrary application of  procedures denied Assange due process in 2010 and it is designed to do so again in 2019.

Perhaps the most vivid example of the UK’s bias when it comes to enabling the Swedish authorities was provided by Hugo Swire, UK Minister of State in 2014 when Marianne Nye was Sweden’s chief prosecutor:

 “…if she [Marianne Ny] wishes to travel here to question Mr. Assange in the embassy in London, we would do absolutely everything to facilitate that, indeed, we would actively welcome it”

European Investigation Order: A very Swedish outcome

Every step taken by the SPA against Assange has been accompanied by a media extravaganza and showcased across continents.  Despite all this, to date it has never amounted to anything more than continued allegations hanging over him, enabling a smear campaign and the alienation of potential political allies who may otherwise rally in his defence against extradition to the US for what are spurious charges.

Since reopening the case and being prevented from extraditing Assange, Persson has stated that if Assange were to be interviewed again, she would issue a European Investigation Order.  She has indicated that she may be the one interviewing Assange in person.  Likewise, she has said she might interview him via videolink.  According to El Pais, De la Mata has indicated that the only obstacle in using a videolink would be if the person being questioned were the accused.  As Assange is the witness in this case and not the accused it is a simpler process.  This means therefore that it is in fact simpler for De la Mata to interview Assange than it is for Persson.  According to the 2017 legislation, she would require his consent prior to interview, a fact clearly identified by the SPA.

The question now arises: would the UKCA, responsible for processing the investigation orders,  place hurdles in front of Persson? Or might Persson receive warm UK cooperation and be accompanied by a posse of the world’s media and flashing cameras all the way up to the iron gates of Belmarsh – were the SPA to ever issue a European investigation order?

UK resistance: Spain

In contrast to its historical collaboration with the SPA, the UK authorities have so far blocked a request from Spain for Assange’s participation in a case that is also critical to his current US extradition fight.   In other words, where Assange is concerned the UK authorities apply procedures arbitrarily and exceptionally, all the while protecting US  ability to extradite him, closing down avenues to justice supposedly protected by human rights and UK law.

It is essential to recognise that inside Belmarsh prison Assange is being denied the very basic rights he is due under international law and UK legislation for prisoners; effectively denied access to justice.  It is staggering that a remand prisoner, unconvicted, should have their ability to take part in a critical criminal case in which they are a witness, and which they have filed, entirely removed by the British state.   The UK prison and legal systems are equipped to manage such arrangements and to respect the legal rights of prisoners.

The comments by the UKCA also demonstrate contempt for those who operate outside British establishment narratives.  It is not the first time the UK authorities have cut down authorities interested in Assange’s legal rights.  UK officials  undermined the UNWGAD following the release of its decision.  At Assange’s sentencing hearing in May in Southwark Crown Court, Judge Deborah Taylor made a series of mistakes, including referring to rape charges in Sweden  (which Assange corrected and which she acknowledged as wrong) while at the same time claiming the decision of the UNGWAD  was “…underpinned by misconceptions of fact and law.”  

De la Mata, like the UN human rights experts who risk the wrath of rogue governments when they dare to challenge  or question them, is being told to eat a slice of British lawlessness.  But his pursuit of access to Assange will be supported by those demanding an end to the violation of Assange’s human rights and his denial of due process inside the UK.

 

A Humanitarian Crisis in Venezuela? A Case Study into NGO Mercy Corps

See the article in Venezuela Analysis archives published October 2018 https://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/14125

Following a sharp increase in Venezuelan migration since 2015, the corporate mainstream media, alongside the governments of the US, EU and Colombia, is aggressively pushing the narrative of a “humanitarian crisis,” at the same time that Western NGOs flock to set up shop along the Colombian border.

But what if NGOs are being used to influence how the movement of people from Venezuela into Colombia is being shaped and reported, and what’s more, if they are directly benefiting from this situation? To explore the idea, we focus on one such NGO, US-based Mercy Corps, which recently announced an expansion of its operations on the Colombo-Venezuelan border.

Mercy Corps’s budget for global operations, of the order of US $500 million (according to its 2017 annual report), includes funding from US and EU government agencies. Its financiers have included the UK’s International Department of Development, which has regularly sent aid via Mercy Corps to rebel-held areas in Syria. Other funders include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Clinton Foundation.

In March 2018, Mercy Corps carried out a “rapid needs assessment” (RNA) of Venezuelan migrants arriving at two main points along the Colombian border. The information gathered was used to “demonstrate” the dangers involved during and after crossings from Venezuela, and the reasons for leaving the country. It is in response to this second question that the people interviewed by Mercy Corps all say the same thing: they are migrating due to an economic crisis in Venezuela, which is linked to hyperinflation.

Independent UN experts, as well as other commentators, have shown on many occasions that the causes of this economic crisis have been significantly exacerbated by the economic sanctions imposed for years upon Venezuela by the US, as well as clarifying that the crisis in Venezuela is economic, not humanitarian. Even US State Secretary Mike Pompeo recently admitted that the sanctions “sometimes have an adverse impact on the people of Venezuela.”

However, Mercy Corps is not concerned with narratives that expose US and EU complicity, and as such, its recommendations fail to include the most obvious point: end the sanctions and stop the hostility towards Venezuela as they are inflicting hardship on its population.

Instead, Mercy Corps’ RNA identified 3 basic needs to be met by the Colombian government: a path to legal entry into Colombia that did not involve passports, the legal right to work in Colombia with the same wages and protections as Colombians and access to shelter, food and water. It is on this third point which Mercy Corps looks to fish for substantial (tax-free) donations and financing from the Global North.

In April, the Colombian government agreed that migrants could register, without passports, at any of the 500-plus checkpoints it would set up along the border over a two month period, to end in June. The reason given was to see how many Venezuelans were entering Colombia. The checkpoints were spread along the 1,500 mile border. Any information supplied by migrants at the checkpoints would be retained by NGOs, not passed to government departments.

By August, the Colombian government agreed that nearly half a million Venezuelans could remain in Colombia for up to two years, look for employment and have access to basic services. The reason given for this change was to accommodate humanitarian needs.

This shift in policy was a reversal of the government’s ruling in February, when up to 3,000 Colombian soldiers were stationed along the border to check for passports. This tightening of rules was referred to as a “diplomatic closure” and the government claimed in a short time the number of migrants fell by 30%.

Yet within a few weeks Bogota U-turned its policy to allow the unhindered movement of Venezuelans, and NGOs such as Mercy Corps were conscripted to enable the process. The new policy of the Colombian government met exactly the needs identified by Mercy Corps, suggesting that the campaign for this migration was an international, organised effort.

In October of this year, Mercy Corps announced they are expanding their services on the border, including providing migrants with a debit card to purchase products. Yet, one out of every three Venezuelans attended by Mercy Corps did not see any improvements to their diet in the two weeks since arriving to Colombia, and 12 percent reported that it had worsened.

Since the Colombian government changed its policy, the number of people leaving Venezuela has increased, according to the Migration Policy Institute, an organisation affiliated to the EU.

As the exodus expands, the humanitarian needs of migrants grow more urgent.

Humanitarian crisis? Mercy Corps as a propaganda tool

The situation of Venezuelan migrants is now being called a “regional humanitarian crisis,” creating a picture of unimaginable catastrophe that needs external intervention.

This escalating crisis narrative of an expanding exodus is placing Venezuela under intense scrutiny. While punishing Venezuela with sanctions from the front, and promoting a migration crisis from behind, the EU and US, with the cooperation of Colombia, are attempting to box Venezuela into a more isolated and vulnerable position.

Colombia has enjoyed close ties with the EU, and soon after changing its policy on Venezuelan passports, it became a NATO partner, further cementing its EU and US dealings. This ballistic development means that the consequences of border conflict, fuelled by a recent movement of 5,000 extra troops to the Catatumbo border region, should be taken very seriously.

Meanwhile, Mercy Corps has consistently driven a narrative of a full-blown humanitarian crisis and rampant violence under President Maduro, including unfounded allegations of repression and torture. For instance, the NGO has made the unsubstantiated, hyperbolic claim on their website that “newborns in Syria have a better chance of survival than those born in Venezuela today,” wich clearly looks to stoke the fire.

Harnessing its “independent charity voice,” Mercy Corps is playing its part as a propaganda tool in vilifying the Venezuelan government, enabling its US and EU funders to continue their sanctions, which only worsen the economic hardship of average Venezuelans, the root cause for leaving their country, as explained in Mercy Corps’ own needs assessment. And whilst all this goes on, Mercy Corps gleefully rakes in ever greater funding so as to “attend” to the “humanitarian crisis” they, together with the mainstream media, have played a key role in manufacturing.

Political interference and profit from Mercy Corps

However, beyond playing a role in the international media war, Mercy Corps is intimately linked to the Washington policy-making establishment that has formulated the US policy of illegal, unilateral sanctions.

Mercy Corps is connected to the influential US Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) through its CEO Neal Keny-Guyer, who declared earnings of $460,000 just for his Mercy Corps role in 2017. Apart from being a member of the CFR, he also serves as chairman for Interaction, the US’ largest alliance of NGOs and sitting on the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Fragility, Violence and Conflict. The CFR, a virtual who’s who of America’s wealthiest and most powerful people, claims it “helps policymakers” on “international peace and stability,” whilst actually pushing Washington’s neoliberal agenda and interests around the world.

The president of the CFR is Richard Haass, Middle East advisor under George Bush, and advisor to Colin Powell under George W. Bush. On his 2016 election win, Donald Trump publicly considered Haass as an advisor.

The CFR president recently displayed his frustration that US-backed military coups and UN- sanctioned military intervention in Venezuela, all of which would create a further migratory exodus, were taken off the table, despite ongoing rumours from the White House, Bogota, and even Brasilia, that they may be be possible.

In February the CFR made a Preventive Action Plan which recommended more economic sanctions for Venezuela, and in May more US sanctions were imposed.

Whilst sanctions have helped create the conditions which drive people out of Venezuela, US government aid has flowed to NGOs in Colombia, to which Mercy Corps has taken its chunk.

Mercy Corps’ 2017 financial statement shows that the organization benefited from US $464,452,000 in governmental grants and private backing alone, only spending $139,876,000 in humanitarian relief and $46,699,000 in humanitarian recovery. Of this humanitarian relief, the vast majority was spent on the mysteriously entitled “subgrant” category, and only $21,753,000 on actual materials and supplies for migrants.

Aid and NGOs: Assets of US policymakers

The CFR also included an aid plan for Venezuela which called for State Department funding for the Bureau of Population, Refugee and Migration (PRM), an organisation which finances Mercy Corps.

In August, the US announced an aid plan at the United Nations Assembly General (UNGA), matching the plan set out by the CFR.

Additionally, in an April article the CFR also suggests “…bypassing the government, if enough aid is provided by the United States, the Lima Group, and the EU to enable people to bring some back into Venezuela.”

The CFR continues: “While not the ideal means to provide humanitarian aid inside Venezuela, smuggling is a well-established activity and effectively closing the border to the influx of such aid would significantly add to the discredit of the Maduro government.”

Indeed, the CFR is explicitly advocating illegal smuggling as a means of destabilizing the elected government in Caracas. Meanwhile, smuggling is a problem for Venezuela, but not in the terms described by the CFR. On the contrary, Venezuela has suffered from extensive smuggling of subsidized goods and fuel into Colombia, exasperating shortages and as such generating more inflation.

Mercy Corps: A toy in the US imperialist toolbox

This game played by think-tanks and policymakers reveals Washington’s glaring double-standards vis-a-vis Venezuela. While they help to create and exploit the need for basic foods and medicines in another hemisphere, roughly 45,000 of their own people die each year through lack of health care. Around 30 million Americans have no medical cover at all, roughly the population of Venezuela, which has health care written into its constitution.

Every year a further 2 million Americans travel out of the US for treatment they cannot afford at home. Some will die if they do not find treatment abroad, but instead of being a crisis, this is termed ‘medical tourism.’

At the same time, the US is deporting tens of thousands of Hondurans, while more attempt to cross the border into the US every day, a legacy of Hillary Clinton’s 2009 adventurism.

Yet, we are constantly told to believe that Washington cares about migrants and the well-being of Venezuelans.

While US policymakers play games around Venezuela, with toys from the imperialist toolbox, along with their EU friends, it is no wonder Maduro fears assassination.

This article is a combination of two texts by Nina Cross, the first of which was published by the Morning Star, edited by Venezuelanalysis.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.

Julian Assange in Belmarsh Prison: Persecution Presented as Procedure

December 2019

The recent open letter by Doctors for Assange to British Home Secretary, Priti Patel, highlights once more the weaponising of maximum security prison HMP Belmarsh in the British government’s abuse of Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks.  The letter is signed by 65 doctors from across the globe, expressing concern for Assange’s fitness to stand trial and asking for an urgent medical assessment of both his physical and psychological state of health, to be carried out in a university teaching hospital.   The doctors fear that without this Assange could die in prison.  We must demand an explanation to why Assange is in Belmarsh prison at all.

Assange has been in Belmarsh since he was forced from the Ecuadorian Embassy in April as the result of a plan hatched between the Ecuadorian government and Alan Duncan, the UK Minister of State for Europe and the Americas at the time.  It was condemned as a violation of international law.  Assange’s subsequent 50 week prison sentence for skipping a police bail in 2012 showed British contempt for the decision of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention that Assange had had asylum status in the Ecuadorian embassy and was being arbitrarily detained there due to the actions of the British and Swedish authorities.

Norms and narratives: persecution presented as good governance

The government’s own reports show that excessive and disproportionate security regimes are the norm for the many lower category prisoners in Belmarsh’s population. This has enabled the state to subject Assange, not a category A prisoner, to continued arbitrary detention in the harshest of prison conditions, unable to prepare his defence due to severe restrictions, while being isolated and constantly surveilled.

Judge Vanessa Baraitser’s  decision in October to remand Assange in Belmarsh as a ‘person facing extradition‘ when his bail skipping sentence came to an end, has effectively led to his indefinite arbitrary detention.  There is good reason to suspect her narrative, that he will abscond if released, is a convenient pretext for keeping him in the category A prison.  Category A prisoners are so called because they are a danger to the public if they escape.  In fact absconding while on bail, a minor offence, and escaping from prison, a serious offence, fall under entirely different categorisations.  How can the state indefinitely remand someone under category A conditions when they pose no threat or danger?  And as already pointed out, the UN working group on arbitrary detention statement shows Assange had reason to not surrender while on bail and sought asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy for fear of being extradited to the US, a fear now clearly vindicated by the US request for his extradition.

So how is it Assange remains in Belmarsh?  Is it to show the US that Britain is using its top prison estate asset to keep the bounty safe?  Or perhaps the state can present Assange as a dangerous menace to the public, by keeping him there.  Government reports show that Belmarsh is not used for holding men for extended periods of time, even the most dangerous, and that should Assange be held there while fighting extradition appeals, were his health not in question and were he to survive, it is possible he could outstay by far the average murderer and terrorist.  Consider that and the fact he is unconvicted, and has never had charges brought against him other than spurious US charges relating to journalism.  As pointed out by Craig Murray, these amount to the very definition of politically-motivated charges.

His weak and deteriorating physical condition is providing the justification for Belmarsh to keep him in the  health care unit – a ready-made narrative for isolation which the public will perceive as another norm.  While there he is kept away from other inmates in a sustained regime of no contact, other than for the weekly opportunity of worship: effective solitary confinement.  The weaponising of Belmarsh prison in the state’s abuse of Assange is total.  We know this because his health has significantly deteriorated, not just in the prison but in the healthcare unit.  We know this because campaigners and friends have witnessed his deterioration over the months and can bear witness to the marked decline in his demeanour and condition.

We can also see from reports and legislation that unconvicted prisoners die in prison, and they have died in Belmarsh.   Such a case is described, in a report by the prison ombudsman, of a man who entered Belmarsh in April 2014 and died in the July from pancreatic cancer.  Doctors ceased his treatment prior to his imprisonment, as it was not working.  The report reveals that he was on remand for “alleged charges”, therefore an unconvicted prisoner, like Assange.

Also like Assange, he was not allowed bail.  The report explains:

The man was a remand prisoner and not eligible for release on compassionate grounds. His legal representatives unsuccessfully attempted to have him released on bail.” 

The report explains that while he was refused release he could have chosen to go to a hospice, although this request could only be granted if he had only two weeks to live.  In the end, the man died in Belmarsh.

Unlike Assange, he was a category A prisoner.  It is here we remember that the state is treating Assange as a category A prisoner, deserving of the harshest treatment, in all but official label, and presenting him as such to the public.  The vitriolic comments about Assange made by judges throughout court precedings have helped to promote this perception.  Who would release such a monster?

It is also important to point out that legislation denies unconvicted prisoners temporary release even for medical procedures, on the face of it because their detention will not be indefinite or lengthy:

“All prisoners other than those who are:

  1. remanded in custody by any court
  2. committed in custody for trial
  3. unsentenced prisoners or inmates

can be considered for temporary release for in-patient or out-patient hospital care, because such care cannot await the patient’s release or cannot be provided within the prison.”

But Assange is being held indefinitely. In an interview in May his lawyer, Jennifer Robinson, said his case could take many years.

We should also remember the promises made by former Home Secretary, Savid Javid, in the House of Commons on 11th April following Assange’s arrest:

“While he remains in custody in the UK, we are now in a position to ensure access to all necessary medical care and facilities.”

On the back of its violation of asylum law and the narrative of ‘absconding’ the state is using Belmarsh, which has the infrastructure, precedents  and perceived ‘norms’ necessary, to destroy Assange while deceiving the public that his treatment is lawful or normal.   If the state does not stop its abuse towards Assange, Belmarsh will become known as the state-sponsored weapon of choice in the assassination of a leading intellectual,  journalist and truth teller.

Unless the UK urgently changes course and alleviates his inhumane situation, Mr Assange’s continued exposure to arbitrariness and abuse may soon end up costing his life.’ Nils Melzer, UN Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Britain’s Media Freedom Campaign Pushes Economic Warfare While Airbrushing the Persecution of Julian Assange

February 2020

At a meeting in Chatham House, London, last week, a ‘High-Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom’ announced their recommendations on ‘how to better protect journalists and address abuses of media freedom in line with international human rights law.’  The announcement shows the true nature and purpose of the media freedom project set up last year by the former British Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, and Canada’s Chrystia Freeland:  the promotion of an alliance in economic warfare – Magnitsky sanctions.

At the meeting, Amal Clooney, celebrated human rights lawyer, appointed by Hunt as the UK media freedom envoy, described cases of journalists being persecuted around the world, including the recent case of Glenn Greenwald, accused by a public prosecutor in Brazil of criminal misconduct related to Greenwald’s anti-corruption investigation ‘Operation Car Wash.’  There was no mention, however, of Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, whom Clooney represented several years ago, and who, only a few miles away, continued to languish in maximum security Belmarsh prison, without charge, as a favour to the US, spuriously indicted for what amounts to an attack on journalism, with just over a week to go before his extradition trial begins.  This is especially strange given that in the days leading up to the Chatham House meeting the European Council condemned the prosecution and extradition trial of Assange, and the leader of the British government opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, stood in the House of Commons and strongly opposed extradition, denouncing it as a threat to journalism.  It is unlikely this blatant omission of Assange’s case was by mistake and it can therefore be assumed it was airbrushed by design.

It is believed Assange’s case would have monumental effects on the freedom of speech,  should he be extradited to the US. It would set the stage for any journalist or publisher anywhere who dared expose US crime and corruption to be subjected to criminalisation, extradition and imprisonment in the US.  It would give global jurisdiction to Washington over dissenting journalists.  However,  instead of addressing this hugely significant case, the meeting promoted Magnitsky sanctions,  a form of economic warfare, engineered by Washington to be a creative ‘extra,’ targeting individuals on top of sanctions regimes affecting populations, packaged in human rights rhetoric.

Magnitsky sanctions can be imposed unilaterally so provide a way around UN Security Council vetoes. However, they will most likely be imposed collectively by a group of powers, essentially the US-UK-EU axis reflecting their shared foreign policy and political alliance. It is not difficult to imagine how these sanctions can be used, and  who some of the likely targets might be.  Theoretically, they could be targeted against officials in the Israeli military the next time a Palestinian reporter is shot dead in Gaza, or targeted against the governor of a Ukrainian prison where a Russian journalist has been held on spurious allegations, but history tells us that is unlikely.  The most likely targets will be individuals in countries where the Western alliance has shared geopolitical interests, and for Britain this is likely to mean targeting individuals in countries such as Russia, Syria, Iran and Venezuela where the US, and Canada, have already imposed individually targeted sanctions in some cases.

The Magnitsky narrative, Bill Browder and British foreign policy

There are Magnitsky provisions in the UK’s 2018 Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act or SAMLA, that provide a framework for waging economic warfare on individual foreign targets under a range of pretexts framed in human rights rhetoric, ostensibly  “Gross human rights violations”. These have their roots in the US 2016 Global Magnitsky Act which followed the original 2012 Act.  This was built upon a web of allegations made by Bill Browder, that Sergei Magnitsky, a  “Russian lawyer” (in reality only an accountant) who worked for Browder in Moscow, was persecuted for ‘blowing the whistle’ on corrupt government officials, before dying as a result of state-sponsored abuse while in prison. This version and the details of events have been challenged by numerous competent and qualified critics of Browder. As it turns out, Browder himself is wanted for massive fraud in Russia, and has also been linked to the UK Foreign Office information warfare program known as the Integrity Initiative.  Aside from being the go-to pundit for all major corporate media outlets, he has been given access to the legislatures, including repeatedly being given a platform in the House of Commons to frame British policy towards Russia.

It is important also to question the legality of such sanctions.  These are not agreed by the UN, but are foreign policy tools of individual states that can be used collectively for politically-motivated reasons.  They are in effect a means of bypassing  mechanisms designed to arbitrate and uphold international law, regardless of the claim that they are ‘in line with international law.’ They are likely also to be used exclusively by an alliance of the most powerful nations against developing countries who have no such equivalent apparatus or ability to hold the most powerful to account.

What’s more, despite the claim that they do not affect large numbers of people, testimony shows this is not the case; even targeted sanctions have a wide-reaching effect on innocent people who have very little or no recourse in many cases.  As for evidence of abuse to justify sanctions, it has been shown that this is often very poor, and at times, a newspaper article, essentially an item of propaganda,  is all that is needed.  Despite the panel’s claim that an objective group will examine evidence, why should we think the scrutiny needed for justifying sanctions for the abuse of journalists would be any better than the scrutiny needed to justify any other sanctions?

Magnitsky sanctions and Kamal Khashoggi

The case of Khashoggi shows the double standards of the British government.   In fact, following her UN investigation into the killing, Agnes Callamard, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary killings, called on States to carry out an international criminal investigation, having found that Khashoggi’s murder constituted an international crime involving 6 violations of international law, and not only that, but the Saudi’s own investigation also violated the law.

“The execution of Mr. Khashoggi raises an egregious underlying set of facts, as well as violations of fundamental human rights as well as of international law…, any state should be able to make claims on behalf of Mr. Khashoggi and the violation of his right to life, to the UN Secretary General (and any other UN bodies).”

And here we see that despite any state being able to demand justice for Khashoggi, only Canada showed an interest.  Despite speeches and rhetoric, Hunt never demanded truth or justice.  It is therefore not the case that the civilised liberal democracies cannot find who engineered the calculated murder of the Washington Post journalist; it is that they do not want to know.  Instead of pursuing a coordinated criminal investigation that would have involved investigating the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who was suspected by both Callamard and the CIA as being the person giving the order, the Western allies backed down and protected his impunity.

Regarding Magnitsky sanctions imposed by the US and Canada on 17 Saudi nationals for their involvement in Khashoggi’s killing, Callamard made the following statement:

“Targeted sanctions against the individuals and/or entities in Saudi Arabia that were likely involved in the murder of Mr. Khashoggi must continue. However, in view of the credible evidence into the responsibilities of the Crown Prince for his murder, such sanctions ought also to include the Crown Prince and his personal assets abroad, until and unless evidence is provided and corroborated that he carries no responsibilities for this execution.”

The case of Khashoggi shows that powerful governments who employ Magnitsky sanctions will not impose them on real butchers if the butchers are allies, proof enough of the political agenda behind their use. Of those 17 Magnitsky sanctions imposed, Callamard had this to say:

“None of the Governments responsible for issuing such sanctions has provided a well-evidenced explanation as to why these particular individuals have been targeted  for sanction…In comparison with sanctions that have been imposed around the world in response to gross human rights violations, the individuals sanctioned in the aftermath of the execution of Mr. Khashoggi are relatively middle to low-level officials and cannot be said to be members of the Saudi leadership. Yet, the execution of Mr. Khashoggi rises to the level of State responsibility.

This may reflect what Magnitsky sanctions of Western allies are for:  mainly targeting significant individuals in countries which are non-compliant, and on little corroborative proof, or targeting them at individuals of little political influence but who execute tyrannical orders of US and UK allies in an attempt to protect those giving the orders.

Any effective and credible strategy to protect journalists around the world, should it involve sanctions or not,  cannot surely be put together and resourced by a powerful government complicit in the persecution of a leading dissident and journalist?  If the panel engaged in the reality of the historic case of Assange, they would have to endorse sanctions against both the Johnson and Trump governments, but in effect the media freedom project appears to serve as opposition control.  On its face,  for now, it is providing rhetoric justifying economic warfare for increasingly authoritarian governments, some of which are themselves at war with press freedom.  Instead it should be speaking out for the freedom of Julian Assange.

Assange and the Arbitrary Application of Human Rights in British Extradition Courts

“…this will be decided properly, independently by the British legal system respected throughout the world for its independence and integrity...” Jeremy Hunt immediately following the arrest of Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, on 11th April 2019.

This is part 1 of an attempt to compare the way the British authorities treat Julian Assange to the way they have protected oligarchs fleeing Russia and protested the treatment of oligarchs convicted in Russia.  For one they have applied human rights in their courts, for the other they have removed human rights from their courts.  The high profile trials of the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, tried alongside his Yukos business partner Platon Lebedev,  were widely criticised in the West, including Britain,  and therefore serve as a tool to compare against the UK’s treatment of Assange.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky – a case study

When Vladimir Putin first came to power in 1999, UK leaders Tony Blair and David Cameron rode the wave of opportunity that Russia was open to business, and yachting with oligarchs or taking large party donations were perks of the time. Khodorkovsky, Russia’s richest man at the time, was one of the ‘Gangster capitalists‘ and made a fortune through his company Yukos.   Oligarchs got rich from Russia’s state assets, bought at basement-bucket prices through Yeltsin’s loans-for-share scheme.  They made money by rigging the auctions of state assets, paying a fraction of the value, then passing the proceeds to offshore shell companies.  Money made through championed ‘capitalists’ of Russia eventually made its way back into Europe and Britain. Yukos has been described as “…a darling of the Western financial press until it collapsed.”   Khodorkovsky’s conviction for tax evasion in 2005 was received with outrage from Western leaders who claimed his prosecution was politically motivated.  In a second trial in 2010 Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were convicted of embezzlement and money laundering.   John McCain described Khodorkovsky’s prosecution as:

“…a creeping coup against the forces of democracy and market capitalism in Russia is threatening the foundation of the U.S.-Russia relationship and raising the specter of a new era of cold peace between Washington and Moscow.

In 2005 the British courts refused to extradite Alexander Temerko, and other individuals, who had fled to the UK and were wanted by the Russian authorities in connection with Yukos.  The extradition courts claimed the allegations against individuals sought by Russia were politically motivated and they would not receive a fair trial.

The courtroom of Assange versus the courtrooms of Khodorkovsky

It is not necessary or possible to compare every aspect of the cases; this comparison concerns only the treatment by the trial courts and the prison authorities.  The full findings of the European Court of Human Rights of Khodorkovsky’s case are in their reports.  The comparison is made possible because of the reporting by independent writers, including former British ambassador, Craig Murray’, whose ‘Your Man in the Public Gallery‘ articles describe Assange’s February trial.

There are several similarities in the way the court of Baraitser treated Assange and the way the Russian courts  treated Khodorkovsky and Lebedev in their trials.  All men were made to sit in a barred dock.  In the first trial of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev they sat inside a metal cage.  In the second trial they were made to sit in a glass cage, as was Assange in Belmarsh Magistrate’s Court.  In Assange’s case, the guards sat inside  with him.  In the case of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev the guards were armed and stood outside.  The ability to converse confidentially with lawyers was made impossible for each man as the guards beside them could hear everything.

Of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev’s second trial the ECHR findings  show:

“76.  The applicants sought the court’s permission to sit outside the glass dock near their lawyers, but permission was not granted. According to the applicants, while in the glass dock they were unable either to discuss the case with their lawyers confidentially or to review documents. All their conversations during the hearings were within earshot of the guards… (2nd Trial of Khordukovsky and Lebedev, 2010)”

In his first trial, Khodorkovsky, like Assange, appealed to the court to explain that the arrangements were ineffective.  Like the Russian judge, Baraitser refused to change the arrangements, even though the prosecution had no objection to Assange sitting with his lawyers.  Like the Russian judge she ruled that if Assange wanted to speak to his lawyers the court would adjourn. In the case of Khodorkovsky, the ECHR report shows:

“153. On 27 August 2004 the defence lawyers once again complained that it was impossible to communicate effectively with the applicants during the questioning of witnesses, emphasising that if an adjournment was announced every time one or other question had to be discussed with the applicants in the court session, the trial would progress very slowly. The court responded by asserting that the discussion of any questions whatsoever with the applicants was possible only during the adjournments.”

In Assange’s case,  psychiatric reports were provided about his severe clinical depression.  Baraitser dismissed this and did not adhere to the UK Department of Justice’s best practice guide for courts that vulnerable people should be released to sit alongside their lawyers.

Baraitser also followed the first trial Russian judge by deferring to the court security (Serco in Assange’s case) as having the decision-making power of courtroom arrangements.  In the case of Khodorkovsky this related to whether his lawyer could pass him documents (which was agreed provided the judge could see them).  In the case of Assange it was whether he could leave the glass cage and sit with his lawyers.  In the case of Khodorkovsky the judge’s deference to the prison authorities was a factor in the final decision that a violation had occured:

“…. in her words, the question of transmitting documents between the defence lawyers and the applicants did not belong to the competence of the court; the defendants were detained on remand and all questions related to the exchange of documents were within competence of the respective institution, in particular the escort service, and were regulated by the internal rules. If the exchange of the documents was compatible with those rules, the court would not be against it…”

“From the judge’s reaction it was clear that she did not consider herself competent to deal with that issue (see paragraph 151 above), and that the judge deferred to the prison authorities in a matter clearly related to legal assistance…The defence seemingly had no other choice but to accept that new rule.”

In the case of Baraitser she eventually accepted she had authority to decide, and still chose to keep Assange in the glass cage for the remainder of his trial scheduled in May, without giving a reason.

It is important to note that the ECHR ruling states that security arrangements in a domestic court should be justified:

  1. The Court considers that it is incumbent on the domestic courts to choose the most appropriate security arrangement for a given case, taking into account the interests of the administration of justice, the appearance of the proceedings as fair, and the presumption of innocence; they must at the same time secure the rights of the accused to participate effectively in the proceedings and to receive practical and effective legal assistance (see Yaroslav Belousov, cited above, § 152, and Maria Alekhina and Others v. Russia, no. 38004/12, § 171, 17 July 2018). 

Khodorkovsky and Lebedev in their 2010 trial

Assange has no violent record and his only conviction is a minor police bail jumping offence which resulted from the UK courts ignoring the UN ruling on his arbitrary detention and right to asylum which he requested from the Ecuadorian government in 2012 after entering its London embassy.  He is fighting an extradition case of historic importance that would see him spend the rest of his life in a supermax prison in the US, but due to Baraitser’s ruling must remain flanked by guards in a glass cage for no specific reason.  In the case of Khodorkovsky this arrangement was ruled a violation of Article 6 regarding lawyer-client confidentiality.   In his case,  all of the adjournments took place in the courtroom where guards could still hear.  In the case of Assange, adjournments for discussions with his lawyers will take place in cells nearby.  However, it is possible that his meetings with his lawyers will be listened to, as Belmarsh authorities have a history in listening in on lawyers.

It is here that it is important to remember that the ECHR considers the accumulative effect of arrangements on a trial when deciding upon fairness.  Unlike Khodorkovsky, who, according to the ECHR ruling had no significant health conditions at the time of his first trial, Assange’s psychological and medical conditions have been widely reported.   Following his assessment last May Nils Melzer, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture,  warned that Assange could collapse with the sustained pressure of extradition proceedings to the US where he also warned Assange would not be given a fair trial.  Fears for his health have also come from a global network of doctors, calling for independent specialist diagnostic assessment and treatment.  Psychiatric reports demonstrate that he is very vulnerable, warning of a risk of suicide.    All of these pleas have been ignored by the British extradition courts.   So what effect could Baraitser’s unnecessary planned security arrangements have on the mental state of Assange and on his trial?  What will result from the sustained psychological pressure and cognitive demands resulting from inevitable disjointed communication with his lawyers?  What’s more, Assange’s case is followed by the world; his regular trips under guard to and from the glass cage in order to speak to his lawyers will be reported globally.

We should recognise the ritualistic and symbolic significance of this treatment: to create the public illusion that Julian Assange must be locked away.  We see that a journalist whose sole criminal record consists of jumping a police bail eight years ago is treated like the most dangerous of men by the British authorities.  We should recognise the significance of Baraitser’s security arrangement for Assange in relation to public mobbing by people in powerful and official positions, as Melzer has warned.

“… there has been a relentless and unrestrained campaign of public mobbing, intimidation and defamation against Mr. Assange, not only in the United States, but also in the United Kingdom, Sweden and, more recently, Ecuador.” 

Continued deference for legal assistance by Judge Vanessa Baraitser and the threat of Covid-19

According to reports by observers at Assange’s bail application hearing on March 25th, Baraitser again deferred to unqualified parties for legal assistance.  On this occasion, she invited journalists to offer their opinion on how to manage the issue of anonymity of Assange’s partner should his partner’s statement be read to the court in support of his application.  Baraitser’s continued reliance upon unqualified assistance in the legal fate of Assange suggests that she does not believe herself to be competent or even responsible.

His lawyers requested bail on the basis Assange has a chronic lung condition and is in a fragile state, putting him at higher risk of complications and even death if he were to catch the virus Covid-19, which has now reached the prison population.  Judge Baraitser’s refusal to allow bail was condemned, particularly as several countries released low security risk prisoners to reduce their risk of infection. This included Iran which temporarily released British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.   Since then the British government has announced that Assange will not be released because he is on remand.  However, the criteria for temporary medical release specifically refers to limited opportunity of custodial prisoners:

“…because such care cannot await the patient’s release or cannot be provided within the prison.”

The assumption is therefore that remand prisoners will not be remanded for long and if convicted may be eligible for temporary medical release.  It can also be assumed that ‘patient’s release‘  relates to individual and specific cases.   It is neither logical nor humane to interpret this as meaning that remanded prisoners should not have the same criteria for release during the spread of a deadly virus that anyone can catch.  What’s more, Assange’s legal defence has  warned that his case could continue for many years, resulting in his indefinite arbitrary detention, rendering the time-related criteria meaningless.  Further, prison rule 21 provides the procedural framework for Assange to be released due to the threat of Covid-19:

Special illnesses and conditions

21.—(1) The medical officer or a medical practitioner such as is mentioned in rule 20(3) shall report to the governor on the case of any prisoner whose health is likely to be injuriously affected by continued imprisonment or any conditions of imprisonment. The governor shall send the report to the Secretary of State without delay, together with his own recommendations.

This should remind us that the health of each prisoner in British prisons is not simply the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice, which counts itself as just one member of the national partnership.  Should Assange die in Belmarsh as a result of Covid-19, responsibility will be the result of state-sponsored medical neglect.

A comparison of prison authorities 

Access to lawyers and document   

The ECHR ruled there were violations to Khodorkovsky’s case, relating to lawyer-client confidentiality, and these included the examination of his legal documents and the permanent presence of guards during discussions with lawyers during trial adjournments.  However, it appears he had significantly greater access to lawyers and legal documents than Assange.  The ECHR findings show that after the 2003 pre-trial investigation was finished:

“The applicants (Khodorkovsky and Lebedev) studied the materials of their respective case files in the remand prison, with or without their lawyers. As follows from the forms produced by the Government, the applicants’ lawyers and the applicants studied the materials on an almost daily basis.” 

The report points out that Lebedev complained because “he had been given only about three hours per day to study the case.”

According to the 2020 ECHR findings, during the first trial:

  1. “… each day when the applicants were brought to the courthouse they had about an hour and a half to discuss the case with their counsel.  After the hearings they also had until 10 p.m. to communicate with their lawyers. Between the hearings the applicants could communicate with their counsel either in the hearing room or in the remand prison.”

In contrast, it was reported at Assange’s case hearing on 13th January 2020, that since 19th December 2019  he had had just 2 hours with his legal team to review case evidence, leading them to declare that they are “on the brink of a judicial review“.   It took six months before Belmarsh allowed Assange, an unconvicted prisoner, to have access to legal documents, making it effectively impossible for him to prepare his case, yet his only conviction is the minor offence of jumping a police bail.  This denial of access to lawyers has been described by  Melzer as torture:

Judge Baraitser has consistently refused to address the violation of Assange’s human and prisoner rights inside Belmarsh prison.

Solitary Confinement

During Khodorkovsky’s almost two year detention in Matrosskaya Tishina he remained in the general population, regularly accessing a fitness room, enabled through private payment.  In 2005 he was transferred to another prison where he spent periods totalling twenty two days in solitary confinement.  This appears to be official and was documented as solitary isolation for whatever reasons.  In contrast Assange spent seven months in Belmarsh healthcare in solitary confinement and effective lockdown, being segregated without reason or recourse in violation of minimum standards and prison regulations.  He had no access to a gym.  Assange was finally removed from healthcare because of campaigning by prison inmates and efforts by his lawyers and supporters.  However, reports indicate that he has still been locked up for most of the time, especially now the Covid-19 virus is affecting prison regimes.

Lawyer-Client confidentiality

In the case of Khodorkovsky,  legal documents were consistently examined by the authorities when passed to him from his lawyers, which the ECHR ruled as a violation of Article 6 client-lawyer confidentiality.  In the case of Assange, his documents were stolen by the Ecuadorian government and passed to the country trying to extradite him.  Violation of Assange’s confidentiality with his lawyers has been demonstrated through the widely reported investigation into the Spanish security company US Global, accused of spying on him inside the Ecuadorian embassy, which included recording his meetings with lawyers.  The content of the surveillance was then passed to the authorities trying to extradite him.  All of this has been ignored by the British extradition courts.

By comparing the cases of Assange and Khodorkovsky we can see the double standards of the British authorities.  While they have refused extraditions to Russia,  claiming concern for human rights, the same authorities strip away at the human rights and the humanity of Julian Assange, in full public view, while boasting of higher moral standards.

 

 

 

 

 

NGOs on the Colombian Border

Click here to see the article published in the Morning Star

A look at how the US is attempting to influence the movement of people across the Colombian border

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The narrative of a “humanitarian crisis” in Venezuela is being driven aggressively by the US, the EU and Colombia, while their NGOs operate at the Colombian border.

But what if NGOs are being used to influence how the movement of people from Venezuela into Colombia is being shaped and reported? To explore the idea, let’s take a look at Mercy Corps.

Mercy Corps is funded by the EU and US to the tune of $500,000 for its global operations. Its financers have included Britain’s Department of International Development, which has regularly sent aid via Mercy Corps to rebel-held areas in Syria. Other funders include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Clinton Foundation.

In March, Mercy Corps carried out a “rapid needs assessment” (RNA) of migrants arriving at two main points along the Colombian border.

The information gathered was used to demonstrate the dangers involved during and after crossings from Venezuela, and the reasons for leaving.

It is on the second point the people interviewed by Mercy Corps all say the same thing: there is an economic crisis taking place in Venezuela, linked to hyper-inflation.

These problems have been investigated by independent UN inspectors and independent journalists who explain that a cycle exists of hoarding by corporations, leading to black market trading, leading to inflation.

These are a result of the economic sanctions imposed for years upon Venezuela by the US and now the EU.

However, the NGO is not concerned with narratives that expose US and EU complicity and, as such, its recommendations fail to include the most obvious — end the sanctions and stop the hostility towards Venezuela as they are inflicting hardship on its population.
Instead, Mercy Corps’ RNA identified three basic needs to be met by the Colombian government: a path to legal entry into Colombia that did not involve passports, the legal right to work in Colombia with the same wages and protections as Colombians and access to shelter, food and water.

A month later, the Colombian government agreed that migrants could register, without passports, at any of the 500-plus check points it would set up along the Colombian border over a two-month period, to end in June.

The reason given was to see how many Venezuelans were entering Colombia. The check points were spread along the 1,500-mile border.

Any information supplied by migrants at the checkpoints would be retained by NGOs, not passed to government departments.

By August, the Colombian government agreed that nearly half a million Venezuelans could remain in Colombia for up to two years, look for employment and access basic services. The reason given for this change was to accommodate humanitarian needs.

This change in policy was a reversal of the government’s ruling in February, when up to 3,000 Colombian soldiers were stationed along the border to check for passports.

This tightening of rules was referred to as a “diplomatic closure” and the government claimed that in a short time the number of migrants had fallen by 30 per cent.

Yet within a few weeks the Colombian government U-turned its policy, to allow the unhindered movement of Venezuelans, and NGOs such as Mercy Corps were conscripted to enable the process.
The new policy of the Colombian government met exactly the needs identified by Mercy Corps, suggesting that the campaign for this migration was an international, organised effort.

Since the government changed its policy, the number of people leaving Venezuela has increased. According to the Migration Policy Institute, an organisation affiliated to the EU, the number of Venezuelans entering Peru almost quadrupled over a four-month period: from 100,000 in March 2018 to nearly 350,000 in early June.

As the exodus expands, the humanitarian needs of migrants grow more urgent.

The situation is now being called a “regional humanitarian crisis,” creating a picture of unimaginable catastrophe that needs external intervention.

Recently, US UN ambassador Nikki Haley called a meeting at the UNSC to address what could be done regarding Venezuela’s crisis, while Luis Almagro of the Organisation of American States, which is heavily funded by the US, suggested a military intervention.

This escalating crisis narrative of an expanding exodus is placing Venezuela under intense scrutiny. While punishing Venezuela with sanctions from the front, and promoting a migration crisis from behind, the EU and US, with the co-operation of Colombia, are attempting to box Venezuela into a more isolated and vulnerable position.

Colombia has made a powerful alliance with the EU, and soon after changing its policy on Venezuelan passports it became a Nato partner, further cementing its EU and US partnerships. At the UN Colombia has been commended for its humanitarianism by its allies.

Meanwhile, Mercy Corps has consistently driven a narrative of a full-blown humanitarian crisis and rampant violence under President Nicolas Maduro, including allegations of repression and torture.

It is playing its part as a propaganda tool in vilifying the Venezuelan government, enabling its US and EU funders to continue their sanctions leading to hardship for Venezuelans, the root cause for leaving their country, as explained in Mercy Corps’ own needs assessment.