Eyewitness to the Agony of Julian Assange

Journalist John Pilger has spent the last three weeks watching Julian Assange’s extradition trial at London’s Old Bailey. He spoke with Arena Online’s editor, Timothy Erik Ström:

Q:  Having watched Julian Assange’s trial firsthand, can you describe the prevailing atmosphere in the court?

The prevailing atmosphere has been shocking. I say that without hesitation; I have sat in many courts and seldom known such a corruption of due process; this is due revenge. Putting aside the ritual associated with ‘British justice’, at times it has been evocative of a Stalinist show trial. One difference is that in the show trials, the defendant stood in the court proper. In the Assange trial, the defendant was caged behind thick glass, and had to crawl on his knees to a slit in the glass, overseen by his guard, to make contact with his lawyers. His message, whispered barely audibly through face masks, was then passed by post-it the length of the court to where his barristers were arguing the case against his extradition to an American hellhole.

Consider this daily routine of Julian Assange, an Australian on trial for truth-telling journalism. He was woken at five o’clock in his cell at Belmarsh prison in the bleak southern sprawl of London. The first time I saw Julian in Belmarsh, having passed through half an hour of ‘security’ checks, including a dog’s snout in my rear, I found a painfully thin figure sitting alone wearing a yellow armband. He had lost more than 10 kilos in a matter of months; his arms had no muscle. His first words were: ‘I think I am losing my mind’.

I tried to assure him he wasn’t. His resilience and courage are formidable, but there is a limit. That was more than a year ago. In the past three weeks, in the pre-dawn, he was strip-searched, shackled, and prepared for transport to the Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey, in a truck that his partner, Stella Moris, described as an upended coffin. It  had one small window; he had to stand precariously to look out. The truck and its guards were operated by Serco, one of many politically connected companies that run much of Boris Johnson’s Britain.

The journey to the Old Bailey took at least an hour and a half. That’s a minimum of three hours being jolted through snail-like traffic every day. He was led into his narrow cage at the back of the court, then look up, blinking, trying to make out faces in the public gallery through the reflection of the glass. He saw the courtly figure of his dad, John Shipton, and me, and our fists went up. Through the glass, he reached out to touch fingers with Stella, who is a lawyer and seated in the body of the court.

We were here for the ultimate of what the philosopher Guy Debord called The Society of the Spectacle: a man fighting for his life. Yet his crime is to have performed an epic public service: revealing that which we have a right to know: the lies of our governments and the crimes they commit in our name. His creation of WikiLeaks and its failsafe protection of sources revolutionised journalism, restoring it to the vision of its idealists. Edmund Burke’s notion of free journalism as a fourth estate is now a fifth estate that shines a light on those who diminish the very meaning of democracy with their criminal secrecy. That’s why his punishment is so extreme.

The sheer bias in the courts I have sat in this year and last year, with Julian in the dock, blight any notion of British justice. When thuggish police dragged him from his asylum in the Ecuadorean embassy—look closely at the photo and you’ll see he is clutching a Gore Vidal book; Assange has a political humour similar to Vidal’s—a judge gave him an outrageous 50-week sentence in a maximum-security prison for mere bail infringement.

For months, he was denied exercise and held in solitary confinement disguised as ‘heath care’. He once told me he strode the length of his cell, back and forth, back and forth, for his own half-marathon. In the next cell, the occupant screamed through the night. At first he was denied his reading glasses, left behind in the embassy brutality. He was denied the legal documents with which to prepare his case, and access to the prison library and the use of a basic laptop. Books sent to him by a friend, the journalist Charles Glass, himself a survivor of hostage-taking in Beirut, were returned. He could not call his American lawyers. He has been constantly medicated by the prison authorities. When I asked him what they were giving him, he couldn’t say. The governor of Belmarsh has been awarded the Order of the British Empire.

At the Old Bailey, one of the expert medical witnesses, Dr Kate Humphrey, a clinical neuropsychologist at Imperial College, London, described the damage: Julian’s intellect had gone from ‘in the superior, or more likely very superior range’ to ‘significantly below’ this optimal level, to the point where he was struggling to absorb information and ‘perform in the low average range’.

This is what the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Professor Nils Melzer, calls ‘psychological torture’, the result of a gang-like ‘mobbing’ by governments and their media shills. Some of the expert medical evidence is so shocking I have no intention of repeating it here. Suffice to say that Assange is diagnosed with autism and Asperger’s syndrome and, according to Professor Michael Kopelman, one of the world’s leading neuropsychiatrists, he suffers from ‘suicidal preoccupations’ and is likely to find a way to take his life if he is extradited to America.

James Lewis QC, America’s British prosecutor, spent the best part of his cross-examination of Professor Kopelman dismissing mental illness and its dangers as ‘malingering’. I have never heard in a modern setting such a primitive view of human frailty and vulnerability.

My own view is that if Assange is freed, he is likely to recover a substantial part of his life. He has a loving partner, devoted friends and allies and the innate strength of a principled political prisoner. He also has a wicked sense of humour.

But that is a long way off. The moments of collusion between the judge—or magistrate, a Gothic-looking Vanessa Baraitser, about whom little is known—and the prosecution acting for the Trump regime have been brazen. Until the last few days, defence arguments have been routinely dismissed. The lead prosecutor, James Lewis QC, ex SAS and currently Chief Justice of the Falklands, by and large gets what he wants, notably up to four hours to denigrate expert witnesses, while the defence’s examination is guillotined at half an hour. I have no doubt, had there been a jury, his freedom would be assured.

The dissident artist Ai Weiwei came to join us one morning in the public gallery. He noted that in China the judge’s decision would already have been made. This caused some dark ironic amusement. My companion in the gallery, the astute diarist and former British ambassador Craig Murray wrote:

I fear that all over London a very hard rain is now falling on those who for a lifetime have worked within institutions of liberal democracy that at least broadly and usually used to operate within the governance of their own professed principles. It has been clear to me from Day 1 that I am watching a charade unfold. It is not in the least a shock to me that Baraitser does not think anything beyond the written opening arguments has any effect. I have again and again reported to you that, where rulings have to be made, she has brought them into court pre-written, before hearing the arguments before her.

I strongly expect the final decision was made in this case even before opening arguments were received.

The plan of the US Government throughout has been to limit the information available to the public and limit the effective access to a wider public of what information is available. Thus we have seen the extreme restrictions on both physical and video access. A complicit mainstream media has ensured those of us who know what is happening are very few in the wider population.

There are few records of the proceedings. They are: Craig Murray’s personal blog, Joe Lauria’s live reporting on Consortium News and the World Socialist Website. American journalist Kevin Gosztola’s blog, Shadowproof, funded mostly by himself, has reported more of the trial than the major US press and TV, including CNN, combined.

In Australia, Assange’s homeland, the ‘coverage’ follows a familiar formula set overseas. The London correspondent of the Sydney Morning Herald, Latika Bourke, wrote this recently:

The court heard Assange became depressed during the seven years he spent in the Ecuadorian embassy where he sought political asylum to escape extradition to Sweden to answer rape and sexual assault charges.

There were no ‘rape and sexual assault charges’ in Sweden.Bourke’s lazy falsehood is not uncommon. If the Assange trial is the political trial of the century, as I believe it is, its outcome will not only seal the fate of a journalist for doing his job but intimidate the very principles of free journalism and free speech. The absence of serious mainstream reporting of the proceedings is, at the very least, self-destructive. Journalists should ask: who is next?

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How shaming it all is. A decade ago, the Guardian exploited Assange’s work, claimed its profit and prizes as well as a lucrative Hollywood deal, then turned on him with venom. Throughout the Old Bailey trial, two names have been cited by the prosecution, the Guardian’s David Leigh, now retired as ‘investigations editor’ and Luke Harding, the Russiaphobe and author of a fictional Guardianscoop’ that claimed Trump adviser Paul Manafort and a group of Russians visited Assange in the Ecuadorean embassy. This never happened, and the Guardian has yet to apologise. The Harding and Leigh book on Assange—written behind their subject’s back—disclosed a secret password to a WikiLeaks file that Assange had entrusted to Leigh during the Guardian’s ‘partnership’. Why the defence has not called this pair is difficult to understand. 

Assange is quoted in their book declaring during a dinner at a London restaurant that he didn’t care if informants named in the leaks were harmed. Neither Harding nor Leigh was at the dinner. John Goetz, an investigations reporter with Der Spiegel, was at the dinner and testified that Assange said nothing of the kind. Incredibly, Judge Baraitser stopped Goetz actually saying this in court.

However, the defence has succeeded in demonstrating the extent to which Assange sought to protect and redact names in the files released by WikiLeaks and that no credible evidence existed of individuals harmed by the leaks. The great whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg said that Assange had personally redacted 15,000 files. The renowned New Zealand investigative journalist Nicky Hager, who worked with Assange on the Afghanistan and Iraq war leaks, described how Assange took ‘extraordinary precautions in redacting names of informants’.

Q: What are the implications of this trial’s verdict for journalism more broadly—is it an omen of things to come?

The ‘Assange effect’ is already being felt across the world. If they displease the regime in Washington, investigative journalists are liable to prosecution under the 1917 US Espionage Act; the precedent is stark. It doesn’t matter where you are. For Washington, other people’s nationality and sovereignty rarely mattered; now it does not exist. Britain has effectively surrendered its jurisdiction to Trump’s corrupt Department of Justice. In Australia, a National Security Information Act promises Kafkaesque trials for transgressors. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation has been raided by police and journalists’ computers taken away. The government has given unprecedented powers to intelligence officials, making journalistic whistle-blowing almost impossible. Prime Minister Scott Morrison says Assange ‘must face the music’. The perfidious cruelty of his statement is reinforced by its banality.

‘Evil’, wrote Hannah Arendt, ‘comes from a failure to think. It defies thought for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. That is the banality of evil’.

Q: Having followed the story of WikiLeaks closely for a decade, how has this eyewitness experience shifted your understanding of what’s at stake with Assange’s trial?

I have long been a critic of journalism as an echo of unaccountable power and a champion of those who are beacons. So, for me, the arrival of WikiLeaks was exciting; I admired the way Assange regarded the public with respect, that he was prepared to share his work with the ‘mainstream’ but not join their collusive club. This, and naked jealousy, made him enemies among the overpaid and undertalented, insecure in their pretensions of independence and impartiality.

I admired the moral dimension to WikiLeaks. Assange was rarely asked about this, yet much of his remarkable energy comes from a powerful moral sense that governments and other vested interests should not operate behind walls of secrecy. He is a democrat. He explained this in one of our first interviews at my home in 2010.  

What is at stake for the rest of us has long been at stake: freedom to call authority to account, freedom to challenge, to call out hypocrisy, to dissent. The difference today is that the world’s imperial power, the United States, has never been as unsure of its metastatic authority as it is today. Like a flailing rogue, it is spinning us towards a world war if we allow it. Little of this menace is reflected in the media.

WikiLeaks, on the other hand, has allowed us to glimpse a rampant imperial march through whole societies—think of the carnage in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, to name a few, the dispossession of 37 million people and the deaths of 12 million men, women and children in the ‘war on terror’—most of it behind a façade of deception. 

Julian Assange is a threat to these recurring horrors—that’s why he is being persecuted, why a court of law has become an instrument of oppression, why he ought to be our collective conscience: why we all should be the threat.

The judge’s decision will be known on the 4th of January.

About the author

John Pilger

John Pilger, journalist, author and film director, has won many distinctions for his work, including Britain’s highest award for journalism twice, an American ‘Emmy’ and a British Academy Award. His complete archive is held at the British Library. He lives in London and Sydney.


More articles by John Pilger

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This is a devastating and worrying read. I’m appalled but feel useless to do anything about it. I’m so glad there are journalists like John Pilger and Julian Assange prepared to seek out the truth in this hostile environment. I wish them and those like them well.

I find this whole trial a real affront to the British notion of fair play . This is nothing more than a charade to assist the corrupt American regime in covering up some of the most atrocious actions in their desire for world domination. We have to stand up against this type of corruption and ensure that the world understands what is going on in the name of ‘so called honest reporting’.

It is of little relative merit to single out any particular nation as the bad guy in the persecution of Julian Assange. Australia’s then Prime Minister Julia Gillard (supposedly a lawyer) asserted Assange was a criminal for his Wikileaks releases, Sweden’s investigations into the sexual abuse allegations did not follow due process and leaked the allegations to the mainstream media itself a breech of protocol and rights. Despite urging from Assange supporters in New Zealand the NZ Government pretended to be one of the three monkeys; See no evil, hear no evil, speak not of evil, and washed their hands of the matter.

It is clear that empire’s imperative to keep its war mongering nature secret is of critical importance, and trumps (before Trump was a thing) human rights, rule of law and the right of publishers to publish in the public interest.

Clearly the case is testament to the fact that empire has no interest in promoting “rule of law”

Thus UK, US, Australia, presumably Canada and New Zealand – the Five Eyes spying partners are in lock step that Julian Assange is to be crucified for revealing empire’s criminal atrocities in for profit wars.

Thus it is well established that the world of people under the Western imperial hegemony are to be denied the truth of any and all that the empire does. It is evident that the attack on Julian Assange and Wikileaks is an attack on humanity and its right to a peaceful existence.

“Despite urging from Assange supporters in New Zealand the NZ Government pretended to be one of the three monkeys; See no evil, hear no evil, speak not of evil, and washed their hands of the matter.”

Correct – I was the journalist who questioned MFAT about NZ gov position on Assange and was told via reply tweet that they had “no position”.

Make no mistake tho, the US would be pissed that NZ publicly stated that position, with one observer telling me he was surprised foreign affairs said anything, given diplomatic risks.

Could it be argued that ‘no position’ also offers no endorsement of the Assange trial, much like the state silence from Australia. A far from robust enough response, but a response nonetheless. I would hope that among the drumbeats of despair journalists don’t miss opportunities to engage with no-position administrations on their decision against extradition trial endorsement.

I feel so sad for a man who is a truether and because he did his job honest and true they are punishing him they are punishing a hero! It’s right in our faces how corrupt governments are and yet they get away with it (same with the shit that’s going on now)
I pray they release him and soon and if anything happens to him then there will be blood on their hands and I also pray that the public stop standing behind the government And their disgusting laws that they make up as they go 🤬

I find it hard to accept that people who would have voted Labour in the past chose to vote Tory . Can they not see the extreme damage that stupid choice has made to this country? They will live to regret that decision and unfortunately we will all suffer because of these stupid idiots who presumably thought that by voting Tory it would somehow elevate them, what fools !

It is this kind of naivety that makes me want to cry for humanity: “people who would have voted Labour in the past chose to vote Tory . Can they not see the extreme damage that stupid choice…”

This is NOT about Labour vs Tory. This is about the state destroying anyone who dares to reveal in any way at all the evil, death, and destruction wreaked by the state – whether Labour or Tory or whatever.

Sometime I still hope that people like Ann Peckham will wake up, but here again I witness the simplistic, blinkered moral self-delusion: “I” and “us” (Labour in this case) are noble and pure and blameless and good, while “they” are the “other” (Tory in this specific case) and therefore “stupid” and wholly and utterly bad. I have virtually given up hope for the such people.

Instead of standing for principles of right and wrong (and Tories are just as much more evil than good as are Labour), people like Ann Peckham still find their comfort and their false “truth” in the ages-old tribalistic “us versus them” herd instinct.

I despair.

Thank you for putting your head above the parapet, I wish more were so brave, sadness makes some of us cowards.

I am an Australian and feel ashamed that this country is shrouded in silence about a fellow citizen who will one day be lauded as a hero. I hope it is not too late for Julian. I notice ‘ noises’ are being made again, by two of our cross bench politicians ( Andrew Wilkie and George Christensen) to force awareness of Julian’s plight. I must point out that those of us here, who followed the trial, and desperately want Julian to come home a free man, not only diligently read your work, and those aforementioned, but also the tweets and interviews from our very own Mary Kostakidas’, who has been a shining light . I thank you, John Pilger, for being as articulate and principled as you’ve been, for as long as I can remember. Free Julian Assange!

Thank you John Pilger for all you effort. I have been following the court case and it astounds me that it was allowed to go on the way it did. My question is; is there no higher governance that can step in when injustice is so blatant? I don’t want to believe that the decision rests in the hands of an obviously biased judge. Surely in the echelons of the British government, there is something someone can do. One can only hope and be active.

John Pilger, Happy Birthday to you in 6 days time! I am a fellow Australian, and have taken notice of all your documentaries, interviews and articles, especially since “Palestine is still the Issue” was produced. Your way with words and principled support of Julian Assange is so admired by those of us struggling to find out what’s really going on, especially when mainstram news is silent. I am very unhappy with the Australian Government’s mamby pamby evasiveness on one of its citizens who will, in future times, be lauded as a hero, as one of our best. The frightening implications of this sham of a trial seems lost in the ‘blah’ of the airwaves here. Thank you so much for reminding us of the perils of complacency and ignorance in regards to the erosion of our democratic freedoms. Can I point out, that in addition to the valiant records of the aforementioned, there are the podcasts, articles and daily tweets from our very own, former SBS reader and journalist, Mary Kostikidas

I am deeply appalled by this travesty of British and American justice. Julian Assange’s treatment over the last 10 years has been criminal. I am also deeply saddened by the fate that undoubtedly awaits him.

Great article.

Like you, I’m appalled at what’s happening. In 2019, as a symbolic act of support I took a copy of Arena featuring his case to Geoffrey Robertson’s chambers in London, and was assured it would get to Julian.

How do we mobilise more decisive political action in his support? Before COVID, a small activist group based in Melbourne was doing great grassroots actions. At one stage, I thought of helping to fund a trip by Barnaby Joyce to London, in the same way that MPs Andrew Wilkie and George Christensen did last year (to quite some fanfare). Those two are convenors and contact points for the Parliamentary Friends of the Bring Julian Assange Home Group. On Thursday, 27 August 2020, two MPs made statements in support of Julian to the House of Reps – Julian Hill (Labor) and Barnaby Joyce.

This 2 page piece is directed at people. like some of my friends, who hold back from wholehearted support for Julian. It’s at https://crosthwaite.squarespace.com/s/Julian-Assange-Whats-going-on.pdf

John I salute you, it’s difficult to get this to the population because of the blatant restrictions by the dark forces behind this. We can only but hope that more and more journalists with your integrity and determination find a way to get this to the world, I feel utter disgust that our government is supporting this totally blatant disregard for human rights etc,etc. They have dragged our once proud and respected justice system into the gutters and this will be irretrievable, we have now become a country that will never ever have any credence throughout the world, this will be thrown in our face whenever we challenge rogue nations, WE are now a rogue nation ! John Pilger, we have the greatest respect for the support for Julian and your other works, long may it continue, Best regards on behalf of myself and the just people of this world, you are a legend !

This show trial has been an insult to the intelligence of most right minded individuals. So much so, that I wonder what the point of it was. As many have stated & I fully concur, the judge’s decision had already been made, before the proceedings commenced. Perhaps that was the point; to parade contempt for the rule of law in full view of other interested journalists & supporters & to completely crush all notions of a fair hearing for Julian, his legal team and family members.
By & large this intimidating tactic has succeeded too, with the mainstream media’s gaze and typing fingers very much averted.
This then must be where we, the unintimidated step up our game & amplify our outrage at this obscene puppet show. Between now and January shout your rage, bombard your social media accounts & tackle ambivalence towards Julian’s plight wherever you encounter it. The stakes have never been higher, there’s the Supreme Court stage to follow if the high court fails him & he has never needed his ‘team Assange’ more. Stay strong & let’s keep fighting for him.

Dear Julian Assange

Thank you for all you have done to bring truth to our world, and continue to do via this show trial against you.
You are in the daily prayers of countless people who realize your condition, and we send you strength and love.

“Premeditated evil now permeates almost everything.”
Mark R. Elsis


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Having long ago failed the litmus test of democracy, this by all counts should be seen as state sanctioned public torture…
Neither China nor Russia have paraded their prisoners to this kind of abuse… Enemy of the state? Execution, done.

The rules are set. People know the rules. But the west, with all our so-called liberties, freedoms, and championing of human rights are publicly torturing Julian Assange in the most blatant way, trying to set an example… and what’s worse. He has only upheld the spirit of our so-called liberal democracy.

Julian Assange is a crucifixion that will be sanctified.

So glad I have two passports as like Julian I am not a footballer etc and would therefore receive zero action from the useless Canberra Trump lap dog clique.
Good on Pilger et al to help raise the profile,

Following the Old Bailey short show-trial ruled by a lowly Magistrate with NO jury.
Julian Assange can mount lengthy appeals in the High Court, the Supreme Court, and at the ECHR/European Court of Human Rights.
A TRUE verdict will then, eventually, be delivered by Senior JUDGES.

I wish there was something we can do. I never understood why Trump is hostile against Assange and Snowden. Most Trump supporters (as well as liberals) want both of them freed, thanked and celebrated. I know I do. I was a military whistleblower myself. They did the right thing. Why are the outlaws for it. It’s ridiculous. Free them both.

Yesterday I rang the office of MP Andrew Wilkie (himself a whistleblower), and was encouraged to lobby MPs to join Parliamentary Friends of Bring Julian Assange Home – https://www.assangecampaign.org.au/bring-julian-home-campaign/. This is a cross-party alliance convened by Andrew Wilkie and and George Christensen. Encouragingly, the list of MPs is growing day by day, with 24 in the group, but doesn’t yet include any Liberals! I will be jumping on the phone and email today, starting with my own MP who isn’t a Friend yet.

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