Wag the Assange

Monday, January 24, seemed to be unexceptional for many journalists and news readers. Updates on coronavirus continued, and mostly local problems were mentioned across the world. Few have written about London that day; at most in connection with Brexit. Yet one of the most important international hearings for journalists – and freedom of speech – began in Courtroom 2 of the Woolwich Crown Court. The United Kingdom has begun to negotiate if WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will be extradited to the United States.

Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning – Whistleblowers of our century don’t need lengthy introductions, whatever your stance towards them is. But they didn’t become hated or loved just because they published some information. Everyone knows their names primarily because they have opened up an international debate on how much the state should be allowed to hide from its citizens what it does. Security or freedom? The ultimate question that intersects and divides the political spectrum. But don’t be fooled by the distortion of social bubbles: few are on the edge. Most people do not perceive these terms as mutually exclusive – and that’s why the debate is so sensitive.

I went to London as an official observer of the European Parliament. The word official here means that the European Parliament has requested and has been granted an observation mission – it is no obligation the British have towards the EU. I was primarily interested in two things: Assange’s health, as there was, and still is, a lot of misinformation; and how the court proceeds, treats him and whether the case is not politicized.

When I queued in front of the court building around nine in the morning, it began to drizzle. I was on the list of observers, however no one had the list on the first day, and chaos dominated the building. So it took a great amount of cheek and assertiveness to fight through the crowd to get inside, as they were letting in primarily journalists in small groups. At around ten o’clock I succeeded, however parts of my parliamentary delegation were either already inside or still outside. So I headed for the guards, told them the reason for my presence and asked where the trial was taking place. They referred me to Courtroom 2. I headed there, darting inside – and found that only a few journalists were sitting there. I sat up, too, and began to nervously write the head of our delegation where they were and if I was in the right place. While I was waiting for an answer, the room began to fill with more people, but no one didn’t care I was there too. After a while the judge arrived and the hearing began. By then I was almost sure that I wasn’t supposed to be there – but I wasn’t going to give up such an opportunity.

Assange was brought in a booth at the back of the room, which was made of plexiglass and was facing the judge – thus both the defense and the prosecution, also facing the judge, had their back turned to him. There were narrow gaps between the plexiglass panels, through which the advocates spoke to Assange. If this does not seem normal to you, rest assured neither it did to the defense. The other day they asked for the accused to sit on the bench with them so that he could speak to his lawyers freely. However, this was not complied with on the grounds that he could talk to them where he was just fine. These words reached a comical dimension on Thursday: While his own defense attorney talked, Assange wanted to say something. So he began to wave his hand in his booth. Everybody ignored him. After a while, he has been noticed by his family and other observers, who were seated in a similar plexiglass booth above the courtroom. They began to wave as well towards the judge. A few long moments later, while the attorney was still talking and people waving, some employee noticed the people in the observation booth. He then finally noticed Assange and only then warned the lawyers that Assange wanted to speak. They had to get up, walk across the room and listen to him with their ears in the gap between the plexiglass. The judge topped it by using this example to exclaim that the system was working and Assange could speak to his lawyers. I would call the system different words, but certainly not “working”.

After the chaos of the first day calmed down and random people whose ID was not even checked and still sat half a day a few meters from Assange (me) were moved elsewhere, they had to solve the technical issues. The observers and journalists had at their disposal a small room in a separate building in the courtyard, where the picture and sound from the courtroom were transmitted. Assange was not seen on the screen at all; and the sound was a matter of lucky coincidence, if people were able to lean close enough to the microphone. I don’t want to be unfair to the court staff – they were really trying to solve all the issues, and with each passing day the organization and transmission were better and better. But I can not omit how unprepared it was at the beginning – as if they haven’t expected such interest and hundreds of protesting and chanting people in front of the court every day. The oldest democracy in the world was thus ironically unprepared for people’s interest, but showed an outdated approach to technology.

So, was in my opinion Assange treated adequately? No. Access to his own defense is the basis of human rights in court, and he has not been given this in an unrestricted form. At the same time, the defense raised in the court on Tuesday morning a complaint about their client being searched the day before twice by security with full undressing, and tied up eleven times. We are talking about a case where it makes sense to have some kind of detention in order for Assange not to flee the country, given his history. But this treatment is barely appropriate even for terrorists. Moreover, the case now is not even about guilt or innocence; America wants to decide that. So why does a British court treat him as a convicted terrorist? Could it be related to Trump threatening Boris Johnson of no trade deal after Brexit, if they don’t send Assange over?

My second goal of finding out about his health is of course less data-based, as I haven’t spoken to him personally or seen his medical reports. The subjective impression, however, is that he is not at risk of life, is physically well and shows at maximum fatigue or distress. But in what state is his psyche, with respect to the current treatment and previous life, probably none of us can even imagine.

Julian Assange is definitely a controversial character in whistleblowing and I am not a judge to decide, though I have personal opinions. But what we need to realize is that this case is not just about Assange. Barack Obama did not want to impose a dangerous precedent on freedom of speech against journalists, so he did not open the case. After taking office, Donald Trump has made himself heard that it is necessary to “put a head on a spike” and “start putting journalists in jail”, considering them to be the enemies of the people. Assange is the result of this political holy war and as such should not be extradited to America. If concerns about the politicization of the whole case are dispelled, it is legitimate to consider him as an individual who has done something and should take responsibility for it. Until then, however, he represents all journalists and whistleblowers and, above all, freedom of speech: and we cannot let them take it from us.