Leo Hollis is the editor of The Trial of Julian Assange: A Story of Persecution by Nils Melzer, which is on sale February 8 and a selection in our Book Club. See all of our winter book club selections.
We heard the news recently from the Appeal court that the UK could extradite Julian Assange to the US. Despite being utterly predictable it is still shocking. On the news, his partner Stella Moris held back tears and asked how it was justified that a journalist and whistleblower who had exposed the US’s war crimes could now be handed over to a state that had secretly plotted to assassinate him.
It is hard not to feel emotional about such injustice but it is important to hold on to the facts. It is the facts of the case that are most important here and Nils Melzer’s The Trial of Julian Assange is a dispassionate, unbiased and totally convincing account of what is happening here, what matters, and the terrible costs – to Assange as well as to ourselves – that will result if we allow this to stand.
I first met Assange in 2014 when he was in the Ecuadorian embassy in Kensington. Along with the brilliant Sarah Harrison, we were discussing how to put together The Wikileaks Files: The World According to US Empire, a survey of the 2010 Cablegate files that Wikileaks had published online, and through the major media outlets around the world. We discovered later that Assange was already under extreme duress and surveillance from various parties. In a shocking news story from Yahoo earlier this year this included a CIA assassination plot. It is now time for the conduct of the states who claim to act as the world’s moral leaders – the US, UK and Sweden – to be put under scrutiny.
Nils Melzer is one of the world’s most respected Human Rights lawyers. He has advised the Red Cross, NATO and various government bodies on questions of international law, targeted killing and cyber warfare. Since 2016 he has been the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment. In this role he has dealt with crimes in Myanmar, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. In 2019 he was made aware of the conditions of Assange’s confinement, who had been recently been dragged from the Embassy and moved to Belmarsh Prison, London.
Initially reluctant to engage, Melzer went to Belmarsh with two medical experts to ensure that the prisoner was being treated properly. He was quickly convinced that Assange was the victim of psychological torture and that his life was at risk. Later that year, in November 2019, he released an official criticism of the conditions of his detention and also the nature of the charges against him. He is not being charged for crimes in Sweden but for being a traitor by the US, under the Espionage Act.
The Trial of Julian Assange is the systematic account of the case against Assange from Cablegate to the recent Appeal hearing in October 2021. It is clear that Assange will never face a fair trial in the courts, so this fights needs to be in the public sphere. It is firstly a damning indictment of the treatment of a whistleblower at the hands of powerful governments who seem to think themselves above international law. Secondly, it is a passionate defense of the first amendment, and a journalist’s right to publish the truth. Finally it is the private story of Assange himself and the sacrifices he has had to face – and continues to endure – in the pursuit of the truth.
The Appeal Court decided that Assange is able to be extradited to America, where he could face up to 175 years in custody. The US government have promised not to imprison him in a high security jail, but as Melzer argues, he remains a victim of torture and inhuman treatment. This is a threat not just to Assange himself but to freedom of speech everywhere in the world. Democracy itself is in the balance. Nils Melzer’s book is the essential, utterly forensic analysis of this case.
Verso editor, London, January 2022