In an in-depth interview with Il Fatto Quotidiano, Nils Melzer discusses his investigation on the WikiLeaks founder, which has made him speak out as a whistleblower and raise an alarm on this case and its implications: “We have already created a parallel world of secret services that controls everything”.
He deals with torture victims on a daily basis, so he is not easily shocked by abuses. And yet, he says, he is ‘speechless’ when it comes to the case of Julian Assange. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer, has just published a book in German: “Der Fall Julian Assange”, which reconstructs his investigation based on exclusive documents. He tells Il Fatto Quotidiano what he has discovered and what he thinks is likely to happen.
What made a Special Rapporteur on Torture work on the Assange case and write a book on it?
“When Julian Assange was still at the embassy in December 2018, his legal team actually reached out to my office. I remember it was just before Christmas, I saw this message pop up on my screen and I swiped it away immediately. I had this intuitive reaction: what does that guy want? He’s a rapist, a narcissist, a hacker, this isn’t serious, so I just discarded it. I have around 15 requests per day, and I can do one, it’s very routine for me to decide quickly, but I remember those negative emotions I had, that I usually don’t have.
Three months later his lawyers came back to me in March 2019, and they also sent me Dr. Sondra Crosby’s medical assessment. And I knew Dr. Crosby was a big name as an independent medical expert, who was not associated with Assange activists. I read these objective assessments by Dr. Crosby, by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, I also read an article by James Goodale the Pentagon Papers man. I realised that I had strong prejudices against Assange, even though it’s my profession as a Human Rights expert to be objective. I started investigating further, scratching the surface of this case. The deeper I got into the case, the more dirt and contradictions came to the light. I also knew that I could not rely on information in the media and in the press, because that’s precisely the source that had deceived me in the first place. To be objective, I had to go visit him in prison, and, to be sure, I took not one medical doctor, but even two medical doctors with me, who are independent from each other and are not employed by the UN; they work as external experts for the International Criminal Court, the International Committee of the Red Cross and so on.
We spent 4 hours with Julian Assange, I spoke to him for one hour, and the forensic expert had one hour for a physical examination, and the psychiatrist did a two-hour psychiatric examination. Each medical examination was done separately from the other, so they wouldn’t influence each other. All three of us at the end compared our conclusions and agreed that he showed all the signs that are typical of victims of psychological torture. I must admit that I didn’t expect such a clear result.
I reported back to the involved governments by the end of May. I was convinced Julian Assange had been deliberately persecuted and kept in a legal limbo in Sweden, in the US, in the UK and everywhere to put him under pressure and to make him crack. It was done very publicly, in order to make an example of him, to scare other investigative journalists. The message was: ‘If you expose our dirty secrets, this is what is going to happen to you, and no one can protect you. We can violate your rights every day the way we want and no one can do anything about it.’
Apart from Julian Assange being mistreated himself, his case is also relevant for my mandate in two other ways. First of all, Julian Assange exposed evidence of systematic torture. Of course these acts of torture are serious crimes, but none of them have been prosecuted, and that in itself is sufficient for me to intervene and say: you, states, are violating your obligations. The second thing, he has been threatened with extradition to the United States where he will undoubtedly be exposed to psychological torture, just because of the notoriously cruel detention conditions which national security detainees are subjected to in the US. So I had three reasons to intervene for my mandate”.
When you visited him, he told you: Please, save my life. What does he have in common with other victims of torture?
“Torture is used for a wide range of purposes. There is the classic context of interrogations, the other one is torture to intimidate, like when they come to a village and they rape a woman in the village square, in front of everybody, it’s not as much to punish her, as it is to intimidate the population. That’s a very common purpose of torture, even more common than interrogation, and that’s what they are doing with Assange. In a modern democratic society they are not doing it by flogging, but they are doing it using the psychological method, by excluding him from society, by defaming him, by humiliating him in the media, in the press. Think of the witch trials in the 17th century, when those women were stripped naked and paraded around the city and everyone spat at them, that’s a bit what they are doing with Assange. With the Swedish case, everyone is convinced Assange is a rapist, and he has not even been charged. It took the Swedish Prosecution almost a decade to find out that they had no evidence not only to convict him, but even to charge him of any crime whatsoever. They officially admitted that, but everybody is still talking about the Swedish case as if he were a rapist”.
And they keep blaming him for escaping Swedish justice…
“Well, I think if he did anything, he escaped from Swedish injustice. But the thing is this: even if that had been the case, in May 2019 he was in Belmarsh prison – and he is still there – and Sweden reopened the case. They now had more than a year before the rape allegations expired. He was at their disposal. For years they were saying: he’s hiding in the embassy, we cannot charge him of a crime, because we have to question him first. Now when they could question him, they didn’t question him but closed the case for lack of evidence without even questioning him”.
Why do you think Sweden behaved that way? They could have questioned him from the very beginning, in 2010.
“They didn’t want to question him, because they knew, once you have questioned a suspect, then you either have to charge him or dismiss the allegations. They knew that, once they questioned him, they would not have enough evidence to charge him. They thought: if we question him, we will have to drop the allegations against him, and say he is innocent, but they didn’t want to say that, they wanted to keep him artificially in limbo and, most importantly, discredited by these allegations. There is clear evidence for this deliberate procrastination by the Swedish prosecutor which I detail point by point in my book. I have read about 6,000 pages of investigative files in Swedish”.
My FOIA reveals how the UK authorities told the Swedish: don’t question him in London, only question him after extraditing him to Sweden.
“Exactly, the big picture is this: the secret services of the Western states are all acting as one, there is the US, there is the UK, Sweden, they are all allies, since the war on terror, there is no differentiation. Obviously, the US and the UK are very dominant, but small countries like Sweden have no capacity to let their intelligence services collect information in Afghanistan and so on. They are all cooperating with the CIA and the local intelligence services in these countries. This is not because they are criminal in their intentions, but because they cannot cooperate differently in their counter-terrorism efforts. Also: It’s not that the Swedish, the US and UK intelligence services cooperate sometimes; they do it systematically, 24/7, and on so many fronts that it can no longer be disentangled; they are deep in bed with each other.
For the Assange case, all of this is described in the book in a very clear sequence, with the relevant evidence. Why the Swedes acted as they acted, and that the British put them under pressure, because they are very close allies with the US. But it is not only that these countries are serving US interests. In fact, all these countries share the same interest: they don’t want someone like Julian Assange going around and disclosing secrets, because all of them operate the same way. Not only in the West, but essentially all countries in the entire world. That is why Assange doesn’t receive any outspoken support even from Russia or China, they don’t want to see someone like him free either”.
All my attempts to access the correspondence between the US, the UK, Sweden and Australia on the Assange case have been stonewalled for the last six years and the UK authorities even destroyed the documents…
“It’s obvious why: if it was normal legal correspondence, you would already have it, but because it is evidence for corruption, they don’t give it to you. Once you look at the states, and you look at how they behave, it’s absolutely clear: when they receive evidence for war crimes, they don’t prosecute anybody, they only prosecute the person who has given the evidence. That is not what the rule of law in constitutional democracy looks like, that is what a dictatorship looks like”.
What do you think is going to happen now? Extradition has been denied by the British judge Vanessa Baraitser.
“What has changed for Assange? Nothing. He’s still in prison. He’s still isolated and that is exactly what they want. No one wants to set him free. I think this judgment was very smart from their perspective. I was surprised how intelligently this decision serves the interests of these states, because what they are doing is: if they had confirmed the extradition, like everybody expected, people would have started questioning whether or not this is a fair trial. Assange’s legal team would have immediately appealed the decision and the British High Court would have discussed all these legal arguments put forward by Assange’s defence: the charges are political offences, the Espionage Act and the press freedom concerns, even the human rights violations in this case. All these things would have been addressed by the High Court, which is much more independent than the Magistrate’s Court [which denied extradition in the first instance].
Judge Baraitser confirmed everything that the United States wanted, except extradition. She established a legal precedent and that legal precedent confirms that what Assange has done is espionage under the US Espionage Act, and that it is a crime even in the United Kingdom, under the Official Secrets Act, and that in both cases there is no public interest defence, and there is no political offence exception for extradition. All these things were confirmed, step by step. Only in the end, she said: we could extradite him, but we won’t because the prospect of US detention conditions would probably cause him to commit suicide and that would be oppressive. But she has passed a precedent judgment establishing that you, as investigative journalists, can be prosecuted in the future as spies simply for doing your job and informing the public about the crimes of the powerful.
Now the US has appealed this decision to the High Court. They can say: the judge in the first instance wrongly decided that our conditions of detention are inhumane, and they can give diplomatic assurances that they would not put him in Special Administrative Measures. They will call it something else, but it will be the same, and they may also promise to give him access every six weeks to a special doctor or something. So they will argue that the only reason why the extradition was refused has now been removed. And then the High Court could agree that now they can extradite him, because the United States have given “guarantees” removing the concerns of the Magistrates Court.
That’s one possibility. Alternatively, the High Court could also look at the first proceedings which were marked by many procedural mistakes, and say that they cannot decide this case, but have to send it back to the first instance for re-consideration, so now they have to do another extradition proceeding from square one, and it will take another year or two. The US is in no hurry to get Assange in prison in the US, they just want him in prison somewhere”.
And they want to break him down…
“Yes, of course, they hope that at some point he will commit suicide or have a mental break down so that he’ll have to be institutionalised in a closed psychiatric hospital. That’s a possibility, or they will go back to the first instance, and then the US will come forward with a new superseding indictment, so they’ll keep Julian Assange in a permanent cycle of proceedings for another five or ten years. They can easily do that if they want.
During the current proceeding, he should not be imprisoned in Belmarsh. Actually, at the most he should be put under house arrest, because he isn’t serving any sentence, he is only being kept there so he won’t escape extradition, if in the end there is extradition. Augusto Pinochet was also in extradition detention in the UK, but he was accommodated in a villa under house arrest, Margaret Thatcher brought him whiskey and he had unlimited visits. Let us be clear, there is absolutely no legal basis to keep Julian Assange in Belmarsh prison and there never was. Even for a bail violation, you don’t keep someone in Belmarsh. But now for more than 18 months he has finished that sentence for bail violation and there is no legal basis for keeping him there, because preventive detention must be used as a last resort, if there are no other, less intrusive means to prevent his escape, such as house arrest.
But even if in the end they release Assange in the UK, remember that, under the current Court judgment, he will actually remain extraditable to the US. The only reason he is not being extradited is his mental health. If he starts working for WikiLeaks again, they can easily say, and they will let him know: if you start working for WikiLeaks again, we will consider that you no longer have a mental issue and we will re-arrest you and the US will again ask for his extradition – and then this whole judicial proceeding starts anew, with Assange in prison for several years.
If he leaves the UK, and goes to France, then the US can ask France for his extradition, because the British court decision rejecting his extradition is only binding for British authorities. So in effect, unless the US drops the charges, or pardons him, they can continue to punish him by process for the rest of his life. My suspicion is that is exactly what they want. They want to keep him blocked and silenced. It’s also to punish him personally, but they are punishing him primarily to scare everybody else, to make sure you don’t want to launch Wikileaks and disclose all these secrets. The message is: “If ever you have evidence of atrocious crimes, don’t disclose it, because this is what will happen to you’”.
Were you surprised that Pope Francis sent a message to him? He is a worldwide political leader and he did it.
“Maybe because it’s not a state that conducts military operations in the classic sense, not anymore at least, because in the past they did. But maybe it is because, today, the Vatican is one of the few states that somehow functions differently. They have their own secrecy and secrets, obviously, and they would not be keen on WikiLeaks exposing these things. Honestly, I don’t know. I hope it is a genuine spiritual gesture of humanity, as it should be with the Pope. It would be a good example for other state leaders.
The reason I wrote the book, because you asked, is because I have used all the official tools I have at my disposal: I have a mandate to investigate torture, to transmit allegations to states, to ask for explanations, and to report to the UN on my observations. I did all of that, but the states refused to cooperate. And it’s not some dictatorship, where I don’t expect anything else, it’s Sweden and Britain, who go about the world claiming that they are a force for good, they are an example in human rights, but when you confront them with their own violations, they close their eyes. They are happy to support anti-torture activism in other parts of the world, but not in their own garden. If I have used all the tools of my system but they aren’t working, then I have to inform the public. Actually, I have become a whistle-blower myself.
When Navalny came to Germany, we didn’t say he was violating his bail, and when he flew back voluntarily to Russia and was arrested and sentenced for bail violation, everybody immediately screamed “foul” and imposed sanctions against Russia. But then I thought: Hold on, you have your own guy whom you sanctioned for bail violations, and he has finished his sentence more than a year ago, and he is still in prison without any legal basis. When I see the hypocrisy of the West I am speechless, I am honestly speechless.
We have already created a parallel world of secret services that controls everything, and it is getting worse every year. When you go to sleep in democracy, you wake up in tyranny. That’s the motto of my book, taken from a German lawyer, commenting on the Third Reich. That is precisely the situation we are in, we have a world population that is sleeping by and large, and we are still in democracy, but in the background the structures of tyranny are already being built up, and they are already advanced. My book rings the alarm bell, it is a wake-up call, because my biggest fear is that, by the time the world public wakes up from their sleep, we will all live in a tyranny”.
Photo credit @Eugene Jarecki