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Miscarriage of Justice: Why Assange’s Belmarsh Sentence is Wrong


Nina Cross
21st Century Wire

The statement by UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, on the psychological effects on Julian Assange of years of state-sponsored abuse by self-professed democratic countries, exposes an evident breakdown of international law.  One of the signs that there is a collective persecution is the flagrant lack of proportionality in the way the law is applied to Julian Assange by countries involved.  It is increasingly apparent that the sentence passed by Judge Deborah Taylor on 1st May at Southwark Crown Court is a critical part of the ‘systematic judicial persecution‘ of Assange by the UK.

Judge Taylor gave Assange effectively a year in Belmarsh Category A prison for skipping bail in 2012.  Assange was required to prove he had good reason to skip bail:

Under s. 6(3) of the Bail Act 1976, it is for the defendant to prove that he had a reasonable cause for failing to surrender. 

Taylor dismissed Assange’s mitigating reasons for jumping bail, citing the previous judges’ rejection.  This is a collective dismissal of what has been a very public aggression towards Assange by the US government and its allies. Examples of threats to Assange, which appeared in his statement, are seen here, here, here and here.  The question we must ask in the case of Assange is what type of mitigating proof (threats of assassination, torture and abuse aside) would have stood up in Taylor’s court?  Had Assange had a note from Mike Pompeo threatening capital punishment or a life sentence without parole in a high security prison for exposing US war crimes, signed prior to June 2012, would that have got Assange into a B Category prison for 6 months instead?

Taylor dismissed Assange’s fear of persecution by the US, sentencing him to 50 weeks in Belmarsh prison, where his condition, already identified as deteriorating, has worsened to the extent he is now in the prison health ward.  Her reason was that Assange had a choice:

“Whilst you may have had fears as to what may happen to you, nonetheless you had a choice…”

This may be technically true. An individual chased by their attacker may have the choice of hiding, if they can, to avoid being attacked; if their attacker hangs around they can choose to come out and risk being hurt or stay out of sight.  This ‘choice’ has been presented as an illusion of freedom, and in turn, an illusion of due process.

This reality of the ‘choice’ facing Assange has been summed up by Melzer in a response to Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s denial of UK abuse on Twitter:

And so roll on barely three weeks after Taylor’s dismissal of Assange’s pleas, and we see a fresh spate of indictments by the US of 18 charges against him, including espionage charges that have been widely regarded an attack on journalism.  Not only are these politically driven, but they bring with them a sentence of 175 years in prison.  Most reasonable and fair people would see this risk to his life as the mitigating reason Assange took asylum in 2012, which his proof supports.

What we have in British courts so far could only be described as hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil, where US political interests are clearly at stake.

What Assange has been left with is a severe prison sentence passed on the premise there were no mitigating circumstances and that he had no reasonable cause for failing to surrender to bail.  The courts systematically dismissed his fear of extradition to the US, now in play, and the fear of politically driven charges being issued, and life in prison.  There’s also no guarantee that future charges won’t result in the death sentence.

Regarding the Assange situation, the British courts have so far failed to show a shred of humanity, proportionality, or common-sense.

Nor have they shown any deference to international law. Assange’s Belmarsh sentence from Taylor should be seen in the context of Melzer’s comments on the rule of law:

“Mr. Assange has been deliberately exposed, for a period of several years, to progressively severe forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the cumulative effects of which can only be described as psychological torture.

In giving Assange this sentence, Taylor has placed a vulnerable political prisoner, of which the world can now bear witness, in an environment designed to crush him.  This punishment is likely to make him more vulnerable to his persecutors, to force him to give up hope.

Melzer points out that Assange’s sentence in Belmarsh also strips him of the ability to defend himself against his US persecutors through the lack of access to his case files and documents, and limited frequency and duration of lawyers’ visits.  The needless isolation of Assange in Belmarsh has achieved this deprivation at this most crucial and dangerous stage, making him more vulnerable.

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNGWAD) has condemned Taylor’s sentence:

The Working Group is further concerned that Mr. Assange has been detained since 11 April 2019 in Belmarsh prison, a high-security prison, as if he were convicted for a serious criminal offence. This treatment appears to contravene the principles of necessity and proportionality envisaged by the human rights standards

In sentencing Assange, Taylor discredited UNGWAD.  She could not credit the human rights experts because it would mean conceding the UK had acted in contravention to human rights law for several years, including the previous judges’ rulings on Assange, given the 2015 opinion by the UNGWAD that Assange was being held in arbitrary detention.  Taylor described that opinion as:

“…underpinned by misconceptions of fact and law.”

In other words, the UNWGAD panel, of which each member is an authority on international law, and which answers to the UN Human Rights Commission, and is considered authoritative by the European Court of Human Rights, drew their opinion from ignorance and stupidity.  Taylor’s view would appear to lack proportionality.

A further reason Taylor gave for the crushing sentence in Belmarsh was the money the Home Office squandered on surveillance while Assange was in the Ecuadorian embassy:

“… your continued residence in the Embassy has necessitated a concentration of resources, and expenditure of £16 million of taxpayers’ money in ensuring that when you did leave, you were brought to justice.  It is essential to the rule of law that nobody is above or beyond the reach of the law. Orders of the Court are to be obeyed.”

Following Taylor’s logic, we must believe that the British government sees skipping bail as the worst crime imaginable, and will fund up to 150 police officers to stand at the front door of every bail skipping perpetrator.  At least that is what Taylor wants us to think.

Between 2012 and 2016 some 48,340 people skipped bail in the UK. For argument’s sake let’s say they, like Assange, they were all accused, not charged or convicted, of some crime.  Moreover, as in Assange’s case, let’s also assume they had actually been given bail, as he was in 2010, on the basis he was considered cooperative and likely to be acquitted  – suggesting he was not considered a risk to the public.  Are we to believe there would be proportionality or a limit in how taxpayers’ money would fund each one of these cases, or could they each potentially ratchet up a surveillance budget of £16 million, as Taylor’s reasoning infers?  To give this further context, if we take the number of bail skippers in 2016 (7,586) and use that to estimate figures for 2017 and 2018, we arrive at an estimated 63,512 people skipping bail in the UK between 2012 and 2018, roughly representing the time Assange spent in the embassy.  If we apply this figure to the total cost of just overt surveillance for Assange, £16 million, we arrive at just over a budget £1 trillion in public funds.  To show the scale of this disproportionate use of taxpayers’ money on just one bail skipper, we should consider the UK public sector borrowing figure which, between April 2012 and April 2019, totaling almost £490 billion.   In other words, such an expenditure applied evenly and proportionately to all bail skippers would have potentially bankrupted the United Kingdom.

A further question, if we follow Taylor’s reasoning further, would be to ask if all these individuals would be sent to Belmarsh prison for helping to bankrupt the country.

For anyone weighing up whether there has been any kind of bias against Assange, the spectacular availability of funds for police surveillance should be a clue.  Taylor’s disproportionate sentencing of Assange is based on this questionable and disproportionate use of surveillance, as well as the categorical dismissal of any threat to his human rights, only Assange and his legal team are now vindicated by the confirmation of the threat of extradition to a US authority (outraged over his revelations of their own war crimes).

The inclusion of Judge Taylor’s claim during the sentencing of that the state was over-burdened with having to spend £16 million on police surveillance on Assange, should be recognised for what it is: completely arbitrary, and supportive of politically-driven government narratives.  It relates in no way to any other case of bail skipping surveillance in the country’s history, and seems to be accepted for no reason other than the fact the individual skipping bail was Julian Assange.

Why should Assange be any more accountable to policing costs than any other of the 63,511 bail skippers, some of whom were inevitably considered a serious risk to the public?  Do all bail skipping sentences come with a tariff of prison time reflecting policing costs?  This disproportionate use of UK law in the case of Assange must be recognised as a violation of the spirit of the law, and of human rights.

State Sponsored Abuse

We can see the UK establishment is tightly pulling rank to save collective necks and faces, while serving its foreign master, the US.  We know Assange is being abused because we can see it happening; this is not some mysterious case taking place behind closed doors.  We are sitting in a huge public gallery and we are witnesses.

The ruling by a Swedish district court on June 3, 2019, against the issuing of a European Arrest Warrant (EAW) against Assange, already imprisoned and posing no flight risk, was a source for relief.  The Swedish judge decided it was disproportionate to have an arrest warrant on Assange who is already detained in Belmarsh high security prison. Swedish prosecutors will instead question him in person in the UK over their renewed sexual allegations case, as was always requested by Assange.  It suggests there are some courts holding on to their integrity, applying proportionality.

What this latest Swedish decision also revealed is that the UK bail order appears to have been based on an illegitimate issuance of a European Arrest Warrant by Sweden in late 2010.  As former diplomat Craig Murray reported previously, the original Swedish extradition order was followed by an EAW that had not been issued by a judge, which would have been the normal legal due process, but rather by a Swedish prosecutor.  Put simply, judges represent legal authority, while prosecutors often represent political interests. Such a quandary is far from trivial. Murray explains:

“… the original European Arrest Warrant for Julian Assange from Sweden was not issued by any court but by a prosecutor; that this was upheld in the UK Supreme Court despite the Court’s open acknowledgement that this was not what the UK Parliament had intended by the phrase that the warrant must come from a “judicial authority”; and that the law had been changed immediately thereafter so it could not be done again.” 

Murray went on to note that it should be no surprise that when eight years later, “the European Arrest Warrant request for Assange was finally put before a Swedish court, the court refused to issue it. In other words, that is what should have happened back in 2010 if things had been done legally, and not politically. Here Assange’s defense team can rightly argue that the UK original bail order on Assange in 2012 was based on an abuse of Sweden’s own due process. Based on this analysis, the initial EAW should never have been issued, which means Assange would not have been forced to claim asylum with Ecuador in order to avoid being extradited to the US, nor would he be detained in Belmarsh now.

Meanwhile, the UN rapporteurs continue to make a courageous stand by condemning the unlawful and immoral behaviour of supposed enlightened democratic countries.  It is no surprise leaders, such as Jeremy Hunt, would attempt to vilify and discredit them as this is the tactic they have used against Assange.  This is how they treat people who expose the truth.

This week, Secretary Hunt announced for the benefit of the US government, that he would not block an extradition ruling of Assange if selected as the next Prime Minister.  This indicates that under his premiership, the UK may well descend into further lawless chaos, given Hunt’s brazen disregard for human rights and international law.

The risk to Assange is very great if extradited, as expressed by Melzer:

“My most urgent concern is that, in the United States, Mr. Assange would be exposed 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 torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”

Assange cannot be extradited; it would result in the extraterritoriality of the US justice department, the criminalisation of journalism and the possibility of Assange’s death.  British prosecuting services and courts have so far shown they are willing to cross that line. However, we must now see them exercise proportionality and demonstrate human rights and freedom of the press have a chance.

We are the witnesses to state crimes against Julian Assange and press freedom.

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Author Nina Cross is an independent writer and researcher, and contributor to 21WIRE. To see more of her work, visit her Nina’s archive.

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