Stefan Simanowitz

The US diplomatic assurances are inherently unreliable. Julian Assange must be released

This month, the Biden Administration offered diplomatic assurances to the British authorities that if they allow the extradition of Julian Assange to the United States, the Administration will not imprison him in the most extreme American prison, ADX Florence, and will not subject him to the harsh regime known as “Special Administrative Measures” (SAMs). 

Il Fatto Quotidiano’s Stefania Maurizi asked Julia Hall for an analysis of these assurances and for comment on the Pegasus scandal, which Amnesty International has greatly contributed to exposing.

The investigation on Julian Assange and WikiLeaks was opened by the Obama Administration, but it was Trump who charged him and we now have president Biden. Amnesty International is asking for the charges against Assange to be dropped. Do you believe it is likely that the Biden Administration will drop them?

We had some hope early on, when the Biden Administration first took office in January, and we really thought that potentially there could be a review of the case. Biden was the vice president in the Obama Administration, and the Obama Administration clearly chose not to pursue Assange, and so there was some hope at the beginning. Then we saw the appeal. It was really quite disappointing, because we did think that possibly there was an opening there, and for reasons that the Administration has not articulated well so far, they have made the decision to pursue.

The strategy is to keep Assange detained as long as possible. It’s a kind of death by a thousand cuts.

Julia Hall. Amnesty International

At this point, I think the appeal will go through in the United Kingdom, and the disturbing thing about it, in addition to the fact that they are appealing at all, is how long things will take, how this really continues to harm Assange because of his conditions in detention in the UK, especially now with COVID-19. This is part of the strategy to keep him detained as long as possible, it’s a kind of death by a thousand cuts.

Can you explain to us why Amnesty International thinks that diplomatic assurances will not work, and therefore opposes the extradition of Julian Assange to the US despite those assurances?

The US made it very easy for us to oppose the extradition, because they gave with one hand and took away with the other. They say: we guarantee that he won’t be held in a maximum security facility and he will not be subjected to Special Administrative Measures and he will get healthcare. But if he does something that we don’t like, we reserve the right to not guarantee him, we reserve the right to put him in a maximum security facility, we reserve the right to offer him Special Administrative Measures. Those are not assurances at all. It is not that difficult to look at those assurances and say: these are inherently unreliable, it promises to do something and then reserves the right to break the promise.

The judge, Vanessa Baraitser, who denied extradition last January, said: under section 91 of the Extradition Treaty, it would be oppressive to send Julian Assange to a situation in the United States where he may be subjected to conditions of detention that could lead him to self-harm or suicide. So when you look at the assurances and you see that the US government reserves the right to put him in a maximum security facility or to subject him to Special Administrative Measures, based on his conduct, you are not in a state where the prohibition of torture is absolute.

There is a much bigger issue at stake that goes way beyond Assange. The Assange case would affect so many people, should he be sent to the United States and prosecuted

Julia Hall, Amnesty International

The prolonged solitary confinement that exists in maximum security facilities, or if he is subjected to SAMs, are a violation of the ban on torture. The ban on torture cannot be conditioned on anything he does; it’s an absolute ban. No matter what you do, under international laws, you cannot be tortured. It’s really important to remember that the standard in Europe is: is a person at risk of torture or ill treatment? You don’t have to say that he will absolutely be tortured or ill-treated, you have to say: is it a situation where this person would be at risk of torture? The US has built that risk into these assurances.

I have been studying this in the context of the US rendition programme for almost two decades. The US has made it easy for other governments to use assurances, but what this really does is undermine the international prohibition on torture. The UK government should not be involved in any further undermining of the global ban on torture, it should be promoting the global ban on torture.

It is a much bigger issue that goes way beyond Assange. The Assange case would affect so many people, should he be sent to the United States and prosecuted.

Journalists and experts who have followed the case for the last decade believe that what the US and the UK authorities want is for him to either commit suicide or leave the UK prison brain dead. Do you agree with this?

I am not a forensic or medical expert on torture, what I can tell you is that international standards will be violated if he is transferred to the US, and we do have very serious concerns about the proceedings. They have been carried out for over two years with Assange in Belmarsh, during the COVID-19 pandemic, in conditions that have exacerbated his mental health conditions.

It is clear to us that he should be released on bail, pending the conclusion of the proceedings in the UK. In the absence of the administration dropping the extradition, the court process has to continue, but in the middle of that, he should be released. You cannot have a court judgement saying: this person is at risk, because his mental health condition is so fragile, and then keep him in Belmarsh, which just continues to help degrade his mental health condition.

There is action on the US part to drop the charges, but there are immediate actions that the UK can take right now, to alleviate and to mitigate the conditions that actually continue to contribute to his mental health status, which is quite fragile.

Before his arrest, Julian Assange and his visitors were spied on inside the Ecuadorian Embassy. This week, Amnesty International greatly contributed to revealing how thousands of journalists, human rights activists and political leaders were potentially targeted by a cyberweapon called Pegasus, marketed by an Israeli company, NSO Group. Do you think it’s time for a global moratorium?

Yes, we have called for a moratorium until a strong, effective, meaningful human rights regulatory framework is in place. Stop now, and let’s come together and create a framework where people like human rights defenders, journalists, opposition politicians, lawyers, they will not be targeted by that software and – or, if they are, they have recourse. Our call is strong and direct, it’s not ambiguous.

It’s time to make people who defend the use of such tools for anti-terrorism purposes understand that these are weapons: the so-called cyberweapons.

I actually think they already know. Governments are buying from this company, they can buy under the guise of only pursuing criminals and alleged terrorists, but it is key to the notion of the state monopoly on power that the state is going to use any new tool that it gets to maintain that power for purposes beyond those for which it was intended. It’s very clear what happens with this spyware. This is a wakeup call, really, to the rest of the world, that simply trusting that the government is going to purchase spyware only to catch the so-called bad guys is not true. It has been exposed through the work we have done as technical partners on this report, and our partners in Paris, Forbidden Stories, have done. This is such an important story and hopefully the public will be educated to roll back surveillance of this type.

Twenty years after 9/11, we see that in our Western democracies the war criminals and the torturers are free, whereas Julian Assange is in prison precisely for revealing those crimes. Isn’t it time for public opinion to wake up before it is too late for our democracies?

That is precisely what we are trying to do with this report on Pegasus, with the work on Assange. Who is really the perpetrator of the human rights violations, who is violating the humanitarian laws, who is committing war crimes? It is not Julian Assange, it is not dedicated journalists and publishers who put information in the public interest into the public domain.

The perpetrators of these crimes are state actors or agents of the state, and that is why Assange is a threat and other publishers who do the same are a threat, because they push way beyond their weight in terms of holding the states accountable, and states don’t like it. Assange is such an important test case, because he is representative of all that, of state power, and if the US extradites him, if the US gets that long arm to reach out and grab a foreign publisher and bring him into the United States, and says he doesn’t have First Amendment rights to do what he does, that precedent can be damaging so far beyond this case, and that is why we are trying to forestall.

This interview was first published in Il Fatto Quotidiano here