Exberliner has a digital seat inside London’s Old Bailey, where Julian Assange is fighting against extradition to the US. Here’s a recap of the last week’s hearings, as remotely observed from our Mitte office.
In Week 1, we shared our experience navigating the court’s cloud video platform (CVP). Witness testimony from journalism experts, lawyers, and political scientists focused on the underlying political motivations and civil societ impact of this prosecution. In Week 2, there were clarifications from past media partners about WikiLeaks’ robust redaction practices, alongside compelling attestations from whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and torture victim Khalid El-Masri about the relevance of the material in exposing war crimes and extra-judicial rendition. In Week 3, the court heard from technical, medical, and journalistic witnesses. We have been watching every day from roughly 11:00 to 17:00 (10:00 to 16:00 London time). (Here’s why we at EXB give a shit about the Assange trial.)
Bottom line up front
The final planned week of court appearances was packed with testimony and various evidence submissions.
Criminal defence attorneys submitted testimony about American prison conditions. Detailed witness testimony and cross examination about Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) was presented to the court. Exactly what is entailed when SAMs are applied to a prisoner, and if they would likely be applied to Julian Assange was a heated point of contention.
Anonymous witnesses from Spain detailed spying by UC Global against Julian Assange. They explained that the CIA received regular updates from UC Global about the events in the Ecuadorian Embassy.
As abruptly as the process began with technical difficulties four weeks ago, the hearings came to an end and court was adjourned until October 29th. The next substantial ruling is expected on the 4th of January, 2021.
The hearings are presided over by District Judge Vanessa Baraitser, herself supervised by Judge Emma Arbuthnot. The prosecution team representing the U.S. government is staffed by James Lewis QC, Clair Dobbin, and Joel Smith. The defence team representing Assange includes solicitor Gareth Pierce, barristers Mark Summers QC, Edward Fitzgerald QC, and Florence Iveson. A limited number of observers are allowed in the jury box and public gallery, but there is a secondary overflow courtroom.
Monday, Day Fifteen: “They’re going to keep him in incommunicado for a long time.”
With testimony from criminal defence attorneys Yancey Ellis and Joel Sickler, the court discussed prison conditions in the United States, particularly the restrictions imposed on those under Special Administrative Measures (SAMs). SAMs refer to the restrictions imposed on prisoner movement and communication as a result of there being a real or purported risk that such designated prisoners would otherwise engage in acts of violence, terrorism, or unauthorised disclosures of classified information. Ellis mentioned that many facilities can only offer part-time access to psychiatric services. He darkly conceded that ADX has a good record on preventing “actual, completed suicides,” implying that attempts themselves are more frequent.
Sickler recounted his visits to segregated Special Housing Units (SHUs), where prison slop was served through a small slot in the metal box cells, and the only discourse to escape was a lot of screaming and yelling. Brief comedic relief came during a break, when Sickler asked the technical support adjusting his audio settings: “what happened [your] wigs?”
Tuesday, Day Sixteen: “I’m answering about the way it actually is.“
With testimony from former warden Maureen Baird and U.S. attorney Lindsey Lewis, the court continued to discuss prison conditions and the ability for defendants to access their legal representation. Both Baird and Lewis agreed with prior witnesses that Assange would be placed under SAMs before trial for “national security” reasons.
Lewis talked about one of her clients, Mostafa Kamel aka Abu Hamza, who was told in a European court that he wouldn’t go to ADX. In reality, when he was extradited to the U.S., Hamza was detained pre-trial in solitary confinement and has been imprisoned at ADX for the past five years. She noted that she could only speak about the case because enough of it was in the public record; lawyers face restrictions on what they can say when their clients are under SAMs.
Wednesday, Day Seventeen: “Pursued in a cruel and intolerable manner.”
Investigative journalists Patrick Cockburn, Ian Cobain, and Stefania Maurizi had their statements read into the record about the impact of the WikiLeaks releases, within the “wider objective of bringing state crimes and abuses to light.” U.S. attorney Robert Boyle wrote about the use and misuse of grand juries, reminiscent of Chelsea Manning’s essay on the matter while she was being pressured through this very mechanism to testify against Assange.
Bridget Prince, the executive director of One World Research gave a statement about the jury pool available in Alexandria, highly concentrated with government employees, and particularly contractors working in matters of national security and intelligence.
Two anonymous witnesses with knowledge of the UC Global spying operations against Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy, revealed that U.S. intelligence was “obsessed” with monitoring his lawyers, privileged conversations and documents.
Statements by laureate professor of linguistics Noam Chomksy and Jameel Jaffer finished off the day. Referencing Harvard professor Samuel Huntington on “the architects of power in the United States,” Chomsky characterised Assange’s actions as those “that expose power to sunlight.”
It is well understood by the powerful that lifting the veil may cause power to evaporate. It may even lead to authentic freedom and democracy if an aroused public comes to understand that force is on the side of the governed and it can be their force if they choose to control their own fate.
Jaffer, director of the Knight First Amendment Institute, expressed similar sentiments to Timm: “Public deliberation depends on the freedom to publish classified information without authorisation.”
Thursday, Day Eighteen: “All the evidence has been heard.”
Court began in a rush before Julian Assange was even in the dock, and the judge informed him of this fact as he arrived. The rest of the day consisted of recess after recess for the prosecution and defence to negotiate about witness statements out of court.
Eventually, witnesses statements by Professor Michael Tigar and solicitor Gareth Pierce were read into the record in the late afternoon. The first witness statement by Tigar focused on the history of journalism and that the liberty of the press is “not confined to newspapers and periodicals.” The second witness statement by Pierce was a chronological legal saga covering the history of Julian Assange’s asylum process, and WikiLeaks as a publisher. District Judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled that Gareth Pierce’s witness statements would not be admitted on the same grounds as her previous denials of the defence’s request to excise conduct in most recent superseding indictment.
The defence noted that the Spanish investigation into U.S. involvement with UC Global spying was ongoing and those judicial findings may become relevant to Baraitser’s decision.
The future of investigative journalism?
Closing arguments from the defence are due in approximately one month’s time, rebuttal by the prosecution following two weeks later, and finally the defence will have seventy two hours for a final rebuttal of the prosecution’s final filing. Much to the dismay of all viewers, it appears that only paper filings will be allowed, and there will be no further oral arguments. The Baraitser signaled during the fourth week that she had hoped to rule before the election, and now expects to rule early in the new year.
We’ll continue to report on developments in the case as they arise. Court was adjourned on October 1st. The highly anticipated ruling from District Judge Vanessa Baraitser is expected on the 4th of January, 2021. Until that time, Julian Assange will remain in Belmarsh high security prison, the British Guantanamo Bay.
Join us in the future for further coverage of Assange’s extradition trial.