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UN Special Rapporteur On Torture Blasts UK Government’s Indifference To Abuse Against Julian Assange

The government of the United Kingdom informed United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer that they reject any allegation that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange “has been subjected to torture in any form as a result of actions by the U.K. government.”

Officials also reject the findings of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) that Assange was ever “arbitrarily detained.” While living under diplomatic asylum from Ecuador, they contend that Assange was “free to leave the Ecuadorian embassy at any time.”

Melzer strongly objected to the UK government’s indifference toward Assange’s ongoing abuse and mistreatment.

In April 2019, Assange was expelled from the Ecuadorian embassy and arrested by U.K. authorities. The United States government charged him with conspiracy to commit a computer crime and requested his extradition.

U.S. prosecutors subsequently charged him with 17 violations of the Espionage Act in May. All charges related to WikiLeaks’ publication of the Afghanistan War Logs in 2010, which were provided to the media organization by U.S. military whistleblower Chelsea Manning.

Assange completed a 50-week sentence for violating bail conditions and remains detained at Her Majesty’s Prison Belmarsh in London.

A letter from October 29, 2019, which Melzer released, indicates, “Despite significant efforts made by my mandate to ensure a prompt and objective assessment of this case, and despite the urgency of my requests, it took more than four months for [the U.K. government] to respond.”

Melzer adds, “The government’s response failed to address any of my recommendations and to provide any of the information requested and made no effort towards engaging in a constructive dialogue with my mandate.”

During May 2019, Melzer visited Assange and later condemned the “collective persecution” against him by Ecuador, Sweden, the U.K., and the U.S. governments.

“Based on a careful evaluation of the available evidence, I found that the U.K. had contributed decisively to producing the observed medical symptoms, most notably through its participation, over the course of almost a decade, in Mr. Assange’s arbitrary confinement, his judicial persecution, as well as his sustained and unrestrained public mobbing, intimidation and defamation,” Melzer noted.

Two medical experts Melzer consulted determined there was “reasonable ground to believe” that U.K. officials were responsible for contributing to psychological torture against Assange.

Under the Convention Against Torture, the U.K. government has an obligation to conduct a “prompt and impartial investigation” into Melzer’s allegations. They do not have the “political discretion” to merely reject his conclusions.

“This reinforces my concerns expressed in a separate communication about the U.K. government’s recent refusal to conduct a judicial inquiry into British involvement in the U.S. torture and rendition program,” Melzer further declared.

Melzer seemed appalled that the U.K. government would suggest Assange was ever “free to leave” the Ecuadorian embassy. The U.S. government likely would have violated his right to a free trial, right to not be arbitrarily detained, and right to not be tortured or subject to cruel and inhuman treatment.

In fact, the U.K. government completely ignores the ongoing grand jury investigation that was empaneled prior to Assange’s decision to seek asylum.

“No objective observer can escape the conclusion that Mr. Assange’s due process rights have been seriously, consistently, and deliberately violated in every phase of each judicial proceeding conducted against him in all involved jurisdictions,” Melzer asserted.

The list of due process rights violations, as Melzer noted, included: obstruction of his rights during Swedish proceedings; conflicts of interest and overt bias on the part of judicial magistrates; “arbitrary conviction and grossly disproportionate imprisonment for having violated U.K. bail by seeking and receiving diplomatic asylum from political persecution by another U.N. member state”; and obstruction of his access to legal counsel, documents, and other facilities, which has deprived him of his right to an adequate defense.

“Despite the obvious inappropriateness of such harsh and discriminatory treatment for a non-violent inmate held solely in relation to a pending extradition procedure, no adequate explanations appear to be given by the prison administration, and no alternative measures, such as house arrest, or his re-integration in the general population, seem to be envisaged.”

Melzer reiterated his concerns about Assange’s deteriorating health, and in the final part of his letter, he urged the U.K. government to withdraw their authorization for extradition and release him from jail. Or place him on house arrest so Assange may “regains his health and resume a normal and social professional life.”

Assange is detained in conditions that amount to solitary confinement. He spends 22 hours on average in a prison healthcare unit. He has “daily walks” for 45 minutes, access to church services, as well as meetings with lawyers and social visits. But he is not permitted to work or
go to the gym, and he apparently cannot talk with other inmates.

Meanwhile, in Alexandria, Virginia, Manning is jailed at the William G. Truesdale Adult Detention Center, where she has been confined for 294 days. She owes $185,000 in fines as of January 1.

Every day, she is fined $1000 more for refusing to go before a grand jury and testify against WikiLeaks.

Melzer released a letter [PDF] from November 1, 2019, to the U.S. government that raised serious concerns over “coercive measures” against Manning.

He suggested authorities were intentionally inflicting “progressively severe mental and emotional suffering for the purposes of coercion and intimidation at the order of judicial authorities,” and it is compounding Manning’s post-traumatic symptoms and other mental and physical health problems she still experiences as a result of prior abuse she endured when she was imprisoned for releasing documents to WikiLeaks.

“I conclude that such deprivation of liberty does not constitute a circumscribed sanction for a specific offense but an open-ended, progressively severe measure of coercion fulfilling all the constitutive elements of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” Melzer declared.

He requested information about her continued detention and daily fines, especially since her “categorical and persistent refusal to give testimony demonstrates the lack of their coercive effect.”

Manning reacted in a statement, “Nearly every other legal system in the world condemns coercive confinement, and long ago replaced secret grand juries with public hearings. I am thrilled to see the practice of coercive confinement called out for what it is: incompatible with international human rights standards.

“Regardless, even knowing I am very likely to stay in jail for an even longer time, I’m never backing down,” Manning added.

On February 25, a major hearing in Assange’s extradition case is expected to unfold at a court adjacent to the Belmarsh prison. It is expected to last three to four weeks, and U.S. prosecutors will present their case for extradition. 

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."