UN torture expert on Julian Assange’s persecution and the lies behind it

As a UK judge rejects Julian Assange’s extradition but keeps him caged in Belmarsh prison, UN Special Rapporteur on torture Nils Melzer discusses Assange’s persecution and the lies used to wage it.

A UK judge has rejected a US attempt to extradite Julian Assange, citing the Wikileaks founder’s risk of suicide and the poor conditions of US prisons. But Judge Vanessa Baraitser accepted the basis for the US government’s espionage case against Assange and ruled against releasing him on bail.

Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, discusses the longstanding persecution of Assange and the lies that have been used to justify it to the public. Melzer, who has visited Assange in prison, has played a critical role in exposing the deception surrounding Assange’s initial Sweden extradition case.

“Based on 20 years of experiences of visiting prisoners, many of whom are being exposed to to extremely severe conditions including ill treatment, it is a miracle that this man is still alive,” Melzer says.

Guest: Nils Melzer. UN Special Rapporteur on torture and Professor of International Law at the University of Glasgow.

TRANSCRIPT

AARON MATÉ: Welcome to Pushback. I’m Aaron Maté. A British judge has refused to release Julian Assange on bail one day after ruling that he cannot be extradited to the US.

Stella Moris, Julian Assange’s partner: This is a huge disappointment. Julian should not be in Belmarsh Prison in the first place. I urge the Department of Justice to drop the charges, and the President of the United States to pardon Julian. Thank you.

AARON MATÉ: Well, joining me is Nils Melzer. He is the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, and a professor of International Law at the University of Glasgow. Professor Melzer, welcome to Pushback.

NILS MELZER: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

AARON MATÉ: You have visited Julian Assange in Belmarsh. What is your reaction to the judge ruling against his extradition on mental health grounds and based on the dangers of the US prison system, but then the following day saying that still Julian Assange cannot be released on bail?

NILS MELZER: Well, clearly, I can only welcome the decision not to extradite him. I mean, all along since his arrest, and even before that in April 2019, I called first on Ecuador not to expel him from the Embassy, and then on Britain not to extradite him to the US, precisely based on my concerns about the detention conditions that he would likely be exposed to, that are widely recognized to be contrary to the [UN] Convention against Torture. And so, I can only welcome that. And I certainly share the assessment of the judge that his exposure to these types of detention conditions would very likely lead him to commit suicide. He had actually confirmed to me when I visited him in prison that he would not be extradited to the US alive.

And so that being said, the judgment in itself is a very dangerous precedent. It actually confirms all the points of law, the whole rationale that underlies the US indictment against Julian Assange, which really is not about Julian Assange as much as it is about criminalizing investigative journalism as espionage, which is unprecedented, as we know. No journalist has ever been prosecuted under the Espionage Act in the US. And now, the British judge actually justifies that and goes even further and actually says that what Julian Assange has done would also be criminal under the Official Secrets Act of the UK.

So, this judgment sets an extremely dangerous precedent. But it goes also even further than that. Espionage is the quintessential example of a political offense. And the extradition treaty between the US and the UK actually explicitly prohibits the extradition based on political offenses. And so, the judge actually dismissed that argument by the defense, and also dismissed their concerns about Julian Assange having been surveilled by presumably the CIA through a Spanish security agency working for the CIA, having been surveilled and his confidential lawyer and client conversations having been monitored and recorded by the CIA. And therefore, the equality of arms that is the basis for any legal proceeding has been severely violated. So, already, on that basis, he should not be extradited to the US.

She dismissed any concern that these types of state security trials that are being conducted at the espionage court—the District Court in Eastern Virginia—that these are not fair trials, although, as we all know, no national security defendant has ever been acquitted at that court. Those trials are being conducted in secret, based on secret evidence that the defense doesn’t have access to, and the public doesn’t have access to. So, the worst example, really, is of these types of secret trials that you would normally only expect in a dictatorship.

So, just to sum up, all of the legal concerns, which are extremely grave legal concerns in this case, have been dismissed by the judge, and the only reason not to extradite Assange to the US is basically his own medical state, and, to be fair, an objective point being that the conditions of detention in the Supermax conditions and especially the special administrative measures, the so-called SAMs in the US, that these are extremely harsh and oppressive, and, I might add, would violate the Convention against Torture.

Now, what this does is, also, for the appeals phase of this case, it reduces all the issues that otherwise would be discussed at the appeals of the [UK] High Court by experienced judges. It excludes all of these very fundamental legal questions from the discussion. The only point that will be discussed at the High Court is now whether or not Julian Assange’s mental health allows his extradition to the US. And here, the US could… they cannot change his medical state of health, but they can change their assurances as to the conditions of detention he would be subjected to. And so, if the US, for example, came in the second instance in the appeals court and just made diplomatic assurances that they would not subject Julian Assange to special administrative measures, this might change the whole equation—and all of a sudden extradition could be granted without any of the other legal questions being properly reviewed. So, I’m extremely concerned about this judgment.

AARON MATÉ: So, this judgment can be reversed even though she ruled that Assange cannot be extradited? She could reverse that if the US government makes an argument that the conditions she cited as the reason not to extradite him, if the US government said that those conditions would be addressed?

NILS MELZER: Yes. Obviously, this would not be then her decision; her judgment has been rendered. But the US Department of Justice has already announced that they will appeal the judgment to the High Court, the next instance court, and at that level the court could take those assurances into account and then reverse the judgment.

AARON MATÉ: And what are the arguments from the judge, [Vanessa] Baraitser, that citing the fact that Assange skipped bail in the UK before and then took refuge inside the Ecuadorian Embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden? She said that he has a precedent of skipping bail and that he has a huge support network in the UK that could allow him to flee the country. What do you make of that argument from her?

NILS MELZER: Well, you know, to be fair, I mean, it is true that Julian Assange had avoided his extradition to Sweden at the time, although I think we need to be also very clear that Julian Assange never wanted to avoid extradition to Sweden. He said, “I’m willing to go to Sweden,” and he confirmed that repeatedly through his lawyers, “if Sweden just guarantees they will not send me on to the US.” And so, he only feared that Sweden would send him onward to the US without a proper extradition proceeding. And there is a loophole in the Swedish-US extradition treaty that allows so-called temporary surrender of a person without a proper extradition proceeding. And the Swedes have a precedent, or several precedents, where they have just handed over people to the CIA at their Stockholm airport, without any legal proceedings. So, to be fair, he sought refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy, and he also received asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy, explicitly only because the Swedes refused to guarantee they would not send him onward to the US.

So, yes, to return to your question, he had obviously avoided his arrest at the time, when he was on bail. And, so, formally the British authorities have a certain amount of justification in making that argument, that there is a risk that he might abscond again.

But then, also, let’s be very realistic. Even if for the purpose of this argument we accept that the authorities have a right to ensure his presence for the appeals trial and a possible extradition to the US, this can be assured in much less intrusive ways than isolating him in a high security prison. Julian Assange should never have been detained in a high security prison in the first place. Why would they do that? Augusto Pinochet, the former dictator of Chile, was in extradition detention in the UK in the late ‘90s for 18 months, and he was never put in a high security prison. He was held in a villa in guarded house arrest, where he was visited by the former prime minister Thatcher and so on and received unlimited visits also from his family and supporters and even flew in his priest for Christmas, from Chile.

So, I’m just saying that he is not a convict. Julian Assange is not a convict. He is not serving a sentence. He is being deprived of his liberty purely for preventative reasons. But even if we accept that formally this could be justified, I don’t believe it is, because I don’t think there’s any reason to extradite him or to prosecute him anyway. But even if for the purpose of the argument we accept that, then he should be put in house arrest, where he can exercise his profession, he can have a family life. He has his family in London. So, the infrastructure is there; the measures are there to ensure his presence in a much less intrusive manner. That this is not being done, that he is being detained in the most isolated regime that is available in the UK, in the most high security prison in Belmarsh, [with the spreading of] COVID, and effective total solitary confinement and isolation without any external visitors, it shows that the purpose is not to ensure his presence for trial. The purpose is to silence him, to isolate him, to cut his ties to the public, to prevent him from exercising his profession. And that all of this is unlawful. There is no legal basis to do that.

AARON MATÉ: And just to stress this point, the argument that he’s a risk to skip bail is disingenuous, because the only reason that he skipped bail back in 2012 was to avoid this extradition to Sweden, where Sweden refused to guarantee that he would not be extradited to the US. But now that we have a ruling from the UK that he will not be extradited to the US, that takes away the initial reason why Assange skipped bail that many years ago.

NILS MELZER: Sure, I mean, you can make that argument. And I think it’s a very credible argument. But I think, to be fair, we could also argue from the perspective of the court that Julian Assange is not sure that he will win on appeal. So, if the US appeals the judgment, he might still attempt to abscond. I don’t think that’s a realistic assessment, and again, I have to stress that there is in terms of law, there is no way to argue that this extradition could ever be lawful, because espionage is a political offense, because his rights as a defendant have been severely violated throughout the proceeding, because he has been systematically spied upon by the US, who’s the other party in the trial.

So that trial is inherently arbitrary because of the disproportionate punishment and inhumane detention conditions he would be facing in the US. I mean, there’s a long list of reasons which prevents this extradition from going forward under any circumstances, if we presume it will be judged based on the law. But that’s not the case. It’s a purely political case. And so, the reasons for his continued detention clearly are political. They’re not legal.

AARON MATÉ: When you visited Julian Assange in Belmarsh, what was your takeaway about his mental and physical state and the conditions that he was being held in?

NILS MELZER: I would say, objectively, if you look at Belmarsh Prison, it’s a high security prison. I’ve visited many, many prisons in my life, and the detention conditions objectively are not inhumane or incorrect for a high security prison. It’s just that Julian Assange doesn’t belong in a high security prison. And, also, when we examined him with two medical doctors that are specialized in examining torture victims or potential torture victims, a psychiatrist and forensic expert—they’ve done this for decades and both of them are independent—I took them with me to ensure that I had an objective assessment of his state of health, because I knew the case was very politicized and I wanted to ensure that I had an objective assessment. And they examined him separately from each other, and the three of us, separately from each other, came to the conclusion that he showed all the symptoms that are typical for psychological torture.

Now, that was not caused by the conditions of detention in Belmarsh within those four weeks that he had spent there, by the time I visited him. These symptoms have been caused by various cumulative factors that he had been exposed to during his asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy for the six years preceding his arrest in 2019, so from 2012 to 2019. And we’re talking there about the progressively severe isolation, the constant surveillance that took any sense of privacy away from him, which triggered his constant state of anxiety. It was ridiculed as paranoia. But as was proven as soon as he left the Embassy, he wasn’t paranoid at all; he was very realistic about the US being after him. And on the day he was arrested, they immediately transmitted an extradition request to the UK.

So, when you look at what psychological torture is, it’s a form of torture that does not leave physical traces, at least not in the short term. With increasing duration, even psychological torture can lead to cardiac arrest or nervous breakdowns and severe, even physical damage. But in the first place, it does not leave physical traces. And there is a very complex structure of how this is being achieved. It always involves elements of isolation, of intimidation, and here, we should remember that Julian Assange has repeatedly received death threats, especially from the US. Several public figures have called for his assassination. We know that there has been evidence being brought into the proceedings in London in September, that the private security service that surveilled him in the Embassy, there had been plans of kidnapping or even poisoning him in the Embassy.

So, he was fearing for his life, and that’s what’s being done. Intimidation, threats, especially death threats are a very effective way of causing intense distress, which is an element of psychological torture. You cumulate that with constant humiliation, social isolation, physical isolation, and this together over time erodes a person’s sense of identity, a person’s sense of reality, causes a stress level that is far beyond anything that a normal defendant or prisoner, which is already a very stressful situation in itself, would experience, and it can actually cause very grave physical consequences. So, when we examined him, we could already measure physically the impact of this constant inhumane stress level with cognitive impairments and neurological impairments that were already physically measurable.

I still experienced him as being clear in his head. I mean, he was able to communicate with us, he was very anxious, he was under a lot of stress and he didn’t look obviously healthy. I mean, he had lost a lot of weight. But he had problems already focusing in on his discussions, and he had this general kind of behavior that I know from experience from visiting political prisoners that are in similar types of situations around the world.

AARON MATÉ: And what is that?

NILS MELZER: That is this sense of constant anxiety of trying to find… somehow having lost control over their lives and their situation. Being he’s a very intelligent man, he obviously was absolutely aware of the trap, basically, he had been in in this Ecuadorian Embassy, and he was absolutely realistic about what [awaited] him in the US, and he told me that he will not be extradited alive to the United States.

And so, I think here we really saw someone who is very determined to… this option of suicide being the last option of somehow keeping control over his destiny. But as I said, in his capacity to coordinate and to communicate, we could already sense that he was on a downward spiral. And the doctors that accompanied me, they said that his state of health was on the brink of a kind of a downward spiral, where his life could also be then under threat.

And nine days after our visit, actually, we were proved to be right. He had to be moved to the health department of the prison because his state of health became uncontrollable. They had to stabilize him through medication. And from then on, he was kept in medical isolation, basically, which even deteriorated his state of health even further. Very shortly afterwards, he was no longer able to participate in court hearings. And so, for many months, we feared that we might wake up to a day where the news would just say that Julian Assange was found dead in his cell. So, I personally think—it’s based on 20 years of experience of visiting prisoners, and many of whom are being exposed to extremely severe conditions and including ill treatment—it is a miracle that this man is still alive.

AARON MATÉ: You mentioned the threats from the US to Assange. It’s amazing how bipartisan that is. The incoming president-elect Joe Biden has called Assange a “high tech terrorist.” The outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a very chilling speech in 2017.

Mike Pompeo, former Director of CIA: We have to recognize that we can no longer allow Assange and his colleagues the latitude to use free speech values against us. To give them the space to crush us with misappropriated secrets is a perversion of what our great Constitution stands for.

AARON MATÉ: Having observed this case very closely, having seen how the US has acted and how other countries, especially Sweden and the UK have acted, what is your sense of what the US strategy is with Assange?

NILS MELZER: It is clear it’s not prosecution; it’s persecution. And the difference between prosecution and persecution is whether you’re using the law to enforce the law, or you’re using the law for ulterior motives for political purposes. That’s clearly the case here.

If the US were in good faith about applying the law, the first thing they would do is they would prosecute their own war criminals and their own torturers. If Pompeo says something about Julian Assange is “crushing us,” or he’s “threatening us,” well, who is “us”? Is he speaking about the war criminals? Because that’s the only people that are being exposed. Is he speaking about… is he identifying with the corruption that has been exposed? Is he identifying with the torturers? Well, that’s essentially what he’s saying. Because the American people have never been threatened by Assange. The American people are threatened by people who are using violence against them, just as in the case of George Floyd, where you can see the same type of inhumane disrespect that is reflected in the infamous Collateral Murder video that was published by WikiLeaks, where we can see the helicopter crew massacring unarmed and wounded people, especially in Iraq.

And so that is what’s being exposed. And the problem really is that the government has succeeded in making the people believe that there is a security threat to them when their own criminals in uniform are being exposed. Because, obviously, an average US soldier has not committed any war crimes and they’re not being threatened and exposed by WikiLeaks. And these are the people that we should identify with, and we should not identify with those few that commit war crimes. And even if there are whole agencies like the CIA that had an actual policy of torture, we have to realize that it cannot be good faith if states are not prosecuting very, very serious crimes such as torture and murder, but then they’re prosecuting the people that are exposing such crimes, be it the whistleblowers or the journalists.

AARON MATÉ: The propaganda against Assange that the US government has certainly encouraged has been very effective. Many people are under the impression that Assange was trying to avoid rape charges in Sweden, which was not the case. You have done exhaustive work on this, looking into the actual facts of the Swedish case. Give us a summary of how you came to be involved and what you uncovered when you actually looked at the details of what happened in Sweden.

NILS MELZER: Essentially, I got involved in this case when his legal team approached my office and asked for my protection when he was still in the Ecuadorian Embassy, actually, two years ago, in December 2018. I initially refused to get into the case because I had been affected by this public narrative as well, of Julian Assange the rapist, the narcissist, the spy, the hacker, and I had this visceral reaction of, no, this man is just going to manipulate me. And so, his legal team came back to me three months later, just before he was expelled from the Embassy, in late March 2019. And this time they also sent me some pieces of evidence, some medical evidence and also some other pieces that I was looking at.

And when I started looking at the evidence, very quickly I saw that there’s something not adding up, that this is not really supporting this public narrative. In fact, the evidence is contradicting this public narrative that everyone has been affected by, including myself. And so, I felt I owed it to my professional integrity to actually look into this case, and to go and visit him. And that’s also why I took these medical experts with me, to ensure that I had an objective basis for my assessment.

And so, the deeper I got into this case, the more dirt basically came to the surface. And very quickly I realized that the turning point in the story of Julian Assange was the Swedish accusations of rape. And that’s obviously a very, very delicate issue. I mean, I’m dealing with sexual violence on a daily basis. In torture, sexual violence is very common; it’s a very serious crime. And, also, we live today in the time of #MeToo, which is a very legitimate movement. So, the issues are very legitimate about sexual violence, but it also leads to a certain taboo. As soon as a man is accused of sexual abuse, the case basically becomes untouchable. You can no longer even deal with it. And it becomes a taboo you cannot look at. And so, I had to cross that line and say, “Well, let’s actually look at the evidence.”

And now, luckily, I do speak Swedish, and part of my family is Swedish, and so I was able to read thousands of documents that don’t exist in the English language. And what I could see is really that the Swedish authorities had turned a completely different story that was brought to them by two women into rape allegations. These two women never intended to bring rape allegations against Julian Assange. They went to the police station. Both of them had, separately from each other, had sexual contact with Julian Assange, and they went to a police station because they ended up having unprotected sex with him and they feared that they might have contracted some [sexually transmitted disease], especially HIV. So, they wanted him to take an HIV test, and they wanted to know from the police whether they could force him to take an HIV test; that was the only thing they wanted. And the police, within 30 minutes of hearing these women, decided that they were going to take this up as a rape, as a suspicion of rape, and the women did not agree with that. But the police informed them. I mean, in the protocol it says that the police officer says, “I informed them that, even without their will, it was their duty to prosecute this as rape” and that they basically didn’t have any control over that narrative anymore.

And what we can see is in text messages of these women and emails and so on, that they were extremely stressed about this, and that one of them even refused to sign the interview form that was being filled [out] by the police because she wanted to avoid this accusation being made. But the police and/or the prosecutor, we don’t know exactly who it was, but the same evening leaked all this information to the tabloid press. And that’s unlawful under Swedish law; you can’t publish the names of a suspect or of victims of a crime before formal charges are being brought. And so, the prosecutor leaked that information to the press the same evening, and obviously, Julian Assange, that was in 2010, just after his big publication of the Afghanistan War Logs in July 2010, so he was something like a superstar at the time that attracted a lot of people, including a lot of women, and, so, clearly, he was being perceived as a threat by the US and its allies, which includes Britain and Sweden.

And so, these headlines went around the world within hours and brought these women into a situation where they really couldn’t contradict that narrative anymore. Because they had actually gone to the police with a different request, but the police had turned it into a rape narrative that was then pursued very aggressively against Julian Assange, clearly in order to destroy his reputation, to deprive him of his support base. And this was done very deliberately, very studiously, how the authorities communicated very publicly and at the same time avoided bringing formal charges against him for nine years.

Now, here we have to address something that is very important. The authorities have always claimed that Julian Assange wanted to evade justice, that he wanted to avoid the authorities, he didn’t want to answer to these allegations. That is not true. He was in Sweden at the time and he actually contacted the police. He wanted to be interrogated, to be heard. And so, on the 20th of August, the women went to the police, and it took the authorities 10 days, until the 30th of August, to actually hear him out. But in the meantime, this narrative had already spread around the world six times. And when he was interviewed, finally, the first allegation of rape had already been closed by a superior prosecutor who said that there was no factual basis to suspect that any crime had been committed at all. So, he was only interviewed based on a sexual harassment charge, or allegation, against the second woman. And in the beginning of that interview, he asked the police officer, he said, “Well, already we’ve had these very damaging headlines. Do I have to expect that all of what I’m saying now, again, in this confidential interview will again be leaked to the press?” And the police officer assured him that this was not the case. But two days later it was again the headline of the same tabloid paper; it read, “This is the interview of Julian Assange word-by-word.”

So, you can see that this was systematically leaked by the authorities to the press in order to maintain this aggressive rape narrative. And from the beginning, since then, in 2010, this type of very unfair violation of his privacy rights, his due process rights, has been systematic until September last year, even the extradition hearing in London.

I mean, I could go into lots of details about the Swedish case, if you like, but it’s a very time-consuming exercise. The short conclusion really is that, and I think the most important statement to make here is that Julian Assange was in Sweden and he was supposed to leave Sweden on the 25th of August, which is five days after these women went to the police. As soon as he was informed about these headlines from… or about these allegations from the headlines, he actually postponed his departure. He didn’t try to evade or to flee Sweden. He actually prolonged his stay in Sweden for more than a month. He left on the 27th of September. And during this time, his lawyer repeatedly asked the prosecutor to interview him. And then one proceeding was closed, and it was reopened a few days later by a different prosecutor. Again, his lawyer asked, “Well, can my client please make a statement?” And she actually refused to interview him for several weeks. And only one week before his departure, she tried to schedule an interview with him for the 28th of September. So, she did not try to interview him on the rape charge from the 20th of August until the 28th of September, which is six weeks or so. And on the 27th of September, Julian Assange left Sweden. Now, this looks like he wanted to evade the appointment of the 28th. That is not the case. He had planned to leave the 27th already in mid-September, and he had contacted the prosecutor to get authorization to leave the country. And the prosecutor authorized him to leave the country.

And then he was effectively not reachable for his lawyer for several days, because Julian Assange’s credit cards had been cancelled when he arrived in Sweden, by the banks, and so he was not able to actually recharge his phone and get phone credit, and actually could not be reached. That is true. But he did not know that he was scheduled to be interviewed on the 28th of September. He, in good faith, knew that he was authorized to leave the country; he left the country. And, quite interestingly, his interview was scheduled for the 28th, and the prosecutor issued an arrest warrant against him the day before he was scheduled to be heard. Now, why would she do that? She would schedule the interview, and if he doesn’t turn up, then you issue an arrest warrant. But he was scheduled to appear for the interview on the 28th. And on the 27th, she issued an arrest warrant. And so…

AARON MATÉ: And she had also authorized his departure from the country.

NILS MELZER: Oh, absolutely. And she actually even admitted to that. So, this evidence is there in writing. I think it was the 15th of September or something, if I’m not mistaken. It was the 15th of September, his lawyer contacted the prosecutor and asked whether Julian Assange could leave the country. He said, “Look, he doesn’t live in Sweden. He has obligations out of the country. This proceeding is going on. Could you please tell us when he can be heard? And whether there’s any obstacle for him to leave the country?” And she confirmed that there was no obstacle for him to leave the country, and that at the moment there was no question of interviewing him because there were several other steps and other people and other witnesses she wanted to hear before that.

And so, only a week or two later, about the 21st or 22nd of September she asked the lawyer whether they could schedule an interview for the 28th of September, and she didn’t do that through formal channels. She sent him an SMS, a text message, which is a very unusual way of convoking a high-profile suspect for an interview. You don’t do that with a text message, obviously.

So, what you can see is, really the authorities in Sweden were very low key and did not want to hear his opinion, as long as he was in Sweden. But then at the moment he went to the airport, he bought his plane tickets around noon on the 27th of September, two hours later his arrest warrant was issued. But he was still at the airport so he could have been arrested. But they didn’t arrest him. They allowed him to leave.

And there’s an additional point here. His checked luggage disappeared on the flight. It was a short, direct flight from Stockholm to Berlin. And his luggage and only his luggage—none of the other passengers lost their luggage, but he lost his luggage, including some laptops and hard drives and everything. He inquired afterwards, and there’s a written trail of evidence on this. So, he inquired at the Stockholm airport from Berlin what happened to his luggage. And the only thing he received as an answer was, “Yes, we can see that you checked the luggage, and we can see that it never left Stockholm, but we don’t know where it is.”

And so, you know, clearly here we have the security police, the secret service of Sweden, involved with that. We don’t have… clearly, they wouldn’t admit that. But I mean, that’s the only option when you have checked luggage in a place like Stockholm. I mean, we’re not in a developing country where you have any form of chaos at the airport. And one single piece of luggage gets lost, and they can confirm it never left Stockholm, “but we don’t know where it is.” That really is not credible.

And so, and at the same time he’s scheduled, again, to appear for an interview the next day, but an arrest warrant is issued for him the day before. All of this doesn’t add up. And so as soon as he left the country, the prosecutor basically informs the public that Julian Assange has evaded justice. And so, then they became aggressive about pursuing him and wanting to question him. They didn’t want to question him for several weeks while he was in Sweden; as soon as he left Sweden, they did everything for him to be extradited back to Sweden so they could interview him. So, you can see that, here, too, there is not a good faith conduct on the part of the authorities, and you can see that the whole narrative of the rape suspicion was really used to destroy his credibility much more and to paint a picture of someone who’s trying to evade justice. And because that, obviously, is something that creates public interest. You put a spotlight on the person, you speak of sexual offences, of evasion, and so on, and so the headlines will deal now with the person of Julian Assange. But no one actually deals with the other side of the equation, the elephant in the room.

The actual problem in this case is not Julian Assange. I mean, it is about war crimes. It’s about systematic torture. It’s about corruption. It’s about environmental damage that was caused by extractive companies. All these things that have been exposed by WikiLeaks that were threatening to the powerful. And so Julian Assange, what he did, he put a spotlight on that misconduct. And what the powerful succeeded in doing with this rape narrative, especially, is to turn around the spotlight and put it on Assange.

And so, that’s just the reality, how the public reacts. If you’re in a dark room in a cinema, everybody just stares at the screen because that’s where the headlight basically is pointed, right? There could be an elephant in the room; you wouldn’t notice it. And so, that’s really what the public does. When the authorities and the mainstream media focus on Assange and discuss his sexual life—or his cat or his skateboard or whatever in the Embassy—then that’s what’s being discussed. And we believe that this is about freedom of opinion, that we can discuss Julian Assange’s skateboard. But the headlines do not deal with the actual problem, the actual elephant in the room, which is the war crimes and the misconduct of the government. And that is precisely what the government’s tried to achieve with this.

AARON MATÉ: So, as we wrap, what is your sense of what happens next? The prosecutor who oversaw this case in the US has said he’s not sure if the Biden administration will appeal the ruling, will continue the appeal. But what do you expect in the short term? What are you looking for in the coming weeks when it comes to this case?

NILS MELZER: It’s difficult to predict. There’s a certain level of complexity now because we have obviously an incoming administration, Biden; we have an outgoing administration, Trump—the Trump administration that initiated this prosecution and extradition request. The incoming President Biden was the vice president of the Obama administration, which was very happy in having Julian Assange holed up in the Embassy but didn’t want to prosecute and extradite him because of the so-called “New York Times problem,” because of the press freedom amendment that would actually prohibit a prosecution of a publisher.

And so, now we have someone of the old school basically coming back into office, and I could imagine that President Biden would not be interested in having an espionage trial for a publisher. So, there are several options. Either he can expand or change the indictment to a computer fraud indictment or something like this, or they can decide not to appeal and just to say, “We now have a judgment in the UK that confirms the US narrative of journalism potentially being espionage.” So, it may be better to have that threat out there for all other journalists in the world without having it tested in court. And I’m not speaking of the espionage court, which would just wave it through, but perhaps the Supreme Court in the US would be less likely to accept this type of rationale and might even dismiss it in the end. So maybe it’s better for the US administration to have this kind of vague threat out there in having demonstrated on Julian Assange, as an example, that the US will crush you, will destroy you, will pursue you until the end of the world, and the only reason for him not to be extradited is only because he’s already physically and mentally destroyed.

So, this threat scenario, I think, could be attractive to Biden. Unfortunately, the Democrats have not been much better than the Trump administration on the persecution of whistleblowers, and I guess that they would be interested in silencing Assange just as much as the Trump administration would be. I’m not very optimistic there. But there are other ways to do that than through an espionage charge. I would expect Biden to find a different solution, as I said, either expanding to computer fraud or basically stopping the proceeding now, and also maintaining towards Julian Assange this kind of threat scenario, saying, “Look, the UK has confirmed that we can prosecute you for espionage, and the only reason we’re not doing it is because you’re unwell mentally. So, if ever you get well again, we might start it all over again.” So, this could silence him for the rest of his life. So, I’m, unfortunately, not very optimistic.

AARON MATÉ: Well, we’ll have to leave it there. Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, thank you so much for your time and your insight. I have a lot of gratitude, as do many, for all the work you’ve done to bring attention to this case. Your work on this has been courageous and invaluable. So, thank you.

NILS MELZER: Thank you very much, Aaron.

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