For the fifth time in two months I was in London on November 18 to attend a Julian Assange trial hearing at the Westminster Magistrates Court. Since we understood that all hearings are important for the battle, there is no way to avoid even the shortest one. It is crucial to report on what is happening there in order to avoid the false storytelling that can be spread by well-intentioned or malicious people in the absence of films and photos, which are still banned in this public extradition trial.
Our presence is even more crucial as the Wikijustice association has just published and sent to the British courts, MPs and media a ready-to-use request for Julian Assange's release. A British lawyer or human rights association could, in the name of human rights above all state procedures and interests, immediately demand the release of an innocent man, the political prisoner Julian Assange. Indeed, the law gives the right to file this request to the judge every month that passes after the 28 days of his pre-trial detention from October 21 to November 18. Gareth Peirce and Mark Summers, lawyers for Julian Assange, could have directly copied our request written in English with the help of our French and European lawyers.
I doubt they will do so, but it is important to point out, in contrast to the physical and institutional violence I will experience, that Julian Assange could have legally become a free man again that day.
The news of the dismissal of Judge Emma Arbuthnot (1), whose conflicts of interest in this case have been highlighted by some media, comes to me this morning like a balm to the heart as I stand in line with three friends from 6:30 am to 9 am outside the court door. It is important to arrive early to get a place in room number 3, the experience of the October 21 grab fair amply demonstrated it. We are the first ones when the front door of the building opens onto Mitie security guards who will check our bags. At 7:30 am two young men whom we believe to be employees or translators are standing behind us. At 8 am "Greekemmy’s" network presents itself with 15 people and other supporters of Julian Assange form a small demonstration of about thirty people in the cold autumn morning. This time we don't have too many problems with our bags but Mitie's access criteria are fuzzy and erratic - sometimes a camera doesn't fit, the other day it will be a glass jar. We rush towards the lists of the extradited of the day displayed in the hall - surprise, Julian Assange does not appear there! I suspect manipulation and I go up to the first floor. We inspect the lists posted on the doors of all rooms. At the last minute, an employee came to change the one in room 3: yes, at the top of a list of about twenty people to be extradited, as usual from Eastern Europe, is Julian Assange's name.
Usually the work routine of the court is well-established: at 9:30 a.m. the secretary of the registry opens the room, lets the public in and organizes for half an hour the work of lawyers and interpreters before the arrival of the registry, the prosecutor and the judge. From 20 September to 21 October, no one paid any attention to us among the relatives' audience, except on 18 October when we attended the trials of those extraditable from Eastern Europe as identified "observers". But today something has changed. The clerk of the registry leaves at 9:15 and asks who comes for Julian Assange. I am surprised by the turn of events. Having been hanging around in front of the door since 6 a.m. for this public hearing, I thought it was impossible to get us out of the room. Unfortunately, the physical violence that the famous "Greekemmy" had exerted on me on 21 October in front of Room 1 took an institutional turn on 18 November.
We were physically pushed from by the group of 20 people who came with her. Some people are jumping the cue and constantly trying to go past us. One of the women stands so close to my shoulder that her hair and breasts touch my back. It is essential to remain calm, not to respond to provocations, but also not to let oneself be pushed and to keep one's place to indicate that one has the right to attend this public trial on a first come, first served basis. Unfortunately, the court and the security company Mitie cynically changed their own rules at the last minute: the court secretary announces that only "the list" will be accepted. What list? The famous list is held in a masterful hand by "Greekemmy" who wrote down at the last minute the "important people". We protest aloud about the illegality of the list and the fact that we were the first to arrive. The proof is that we are always standing first in front of the door, in front of the secretary and in front of Mitie's agents who came to help him. However, we are fading to allow the lawyers and interpreters of the extraditable to pass through. Moreover, among them arrives an old slender lady that in confusion and tension everyone forgets to greet: it is Gareth Peirce, Julian Assange's lawyer. The secretary hesitates, disappears into the room. Mitie's manager announces that only the press cards will come in, about ten people show up at the door. The tone and temperature are rising. The 13 seats of the audience will be expensive, and everyone tries a diversion, a trick to access them. The woman behind me, yet one of her friends, was shot by "Greekemmy" for dodging the queue. This same woman is insulting in my ear, but I must focus above all on the strategy to convince Mitie's security guards that we, as an association, have as much right to attend this trial as "those on the list" who came after us.
"Greekemmy" has difficulty proving that its legitimacy is stronger than ours. After all, she is a normal citizen on this issue, as are all those who come to court hearings for various reasons. The secretary hesitated and then finally said, "Is there a family? ». The complete families of the Polish and Romanian extraditable of the day are standing behind, certainly annoyed at not being able to assist their relatives because of this uproar. "Greekemmy" announces that "yes, the father is there, but he is down there". The secretary decided to favour "the family" and John Shipton arrived shortly afterwards, without having been involved in the atmosphere of violence that characterized the struggle for Julian Assange's fate. But with him, the secretary of the court first brings in a whole bunch of people from the list of "Greekemmy". Among them were the two 20-year-olds who I guess were still in primary school when Julian Assange was free and active. We do not understand their greater legitimacy than ours to be there. Then the women friends of the commando commander and Anu Schukla who plays the role of bodyguard of John Shipton, in all ten people. We protest. Finally, and this is the miracle of the arbitrary nature of the security company, or the "justice" of the court, Mitie's manager reopens the door and allows three more people to enter the room.
I am one of them with my colleague, the publisher Aymeric Monville. Behind me, the free-riding woman follows me and looks at my stuff with a bad look as we sit on the two remaining chairs in the tiny public space. The actors are in place, the justice show can begin. However, if I recognize all the usual protagonists of the play, including the prosecutor, the registry office and the lawyers for the following accused, the judge is not there. A bailiff who announces the events immediately tells us to turn off our phones, so as not to record the hearing, which everyone has certainly always done so far. Then a tall and imposing man gets up, he has a blond hair in bowl cut and wears a beautiful grey suit and a green tie. It contrasts with the all-purpose aspect of the English judicial employees in the room. He gets up from the bench of the prosecution lawyers and goes to the secretary of the registry and to the prosecutor and talks to them. A yankee doodle? If this is the case, it has nothing to do here in a court supposedly in a sovereign country when the hearing must decide on the release of the accused, who is still innocent, or on his pre-trial detention. If this is the case, the US political pressure on Britain spreads without shame. After the hearing, the man will leave the premises so quickly that I will not have time to question him about his name and pedigree.
Then I notice that the video is already on and a row of red chairs behind a table, unusual for the Belmarsh prison boxes, appears on the screen. There is no uniformed prison guard to introduce the prisoner, as was the case in the videos we followed on October 18, nor is there a "HMP Belmarsh" sign that should hang on the wall. The court asks us to take his word for it that Julian Assange was indeed appearing from Belmarsh prison (and not from a psychiatric hospital or other unidentified place...) when nothing shows it and when throughout the trials the protagonists of the game have always refrained from pronouncing the name of the prison in full, preferring litotes like "where he is", "from where he is"... I reflect on all this, when the surprising event occurs: Julian Assange appears when the judge is not there! He enters the video space and sits in the centre chair. Someone must have pulled the table in front of him so he could sit at it, but we can't hear anything because the sound is not plugged in either on our side or his...
What follows is akin to real institutional violence and a form of torture on us, the spectators. As if the system wanted to tell us "you don't believe us that he's alive, you accuse us of killing him? Well, look at him now! "The screen shows us a man who doesn't react because he doesn't know he's being watched from the room because on the side of the room where he is, the video is off. Julian Assange is shown to us as an animal in a cage. And we are forced, while we are his relatives and supporters, to observe him without his knowledge. We are put in a similar obscene way to the employees of Rafael Correa's security company who have watched Julian Assange for years in the premises of his captivity, on Hans Crescent Street - this strange building in which the premises rented by Ecuador since 1976 have been adjoining since that date those of Colombia, whose proud flag is raised on the twin balcony of the one where Julian Assange sometimes appeared to the public from July 2012 to May 2017.
I quickly feel embarrassed and I feel how humiliating and disturbing this forced spectacle is for him and disturbing for us, especially since it lasts at least a quarter of an hour. It is so long that we come to wish that they would shorten this voyeurism when we had wanted so much to see Julian Assange alive. But to see him alive is to see him in a dignified way, to see him interact with the audience, to see him express himself, to grasp the words he could have intended for us, the audience, as since October 21, he knows that we are there. I had not crossed paths with him, but I had grabbed his gaze, I had encouraged him by the gaze and my attitude to transmit information to us and I had tried to comfort him by my facial expression, by the few authorized gestures. I wasn't the only one. Some people cried when they saw him and he saw our emotion and understood that he is no longer alone. This morning the system decided to tell us: "Look at him. He is ours" and to send us back to our helplessness.
Indeed, I no longer feel like I am facing the same man whose dark and sad, but determined eyes stared at my face on October 21 during the short break. It seemed as if he was asleep, or drugged, so slow were his gesture, he seemed absent, his eyes in the dark. He wears a grey sweatshirt and beige pants, it is not clear from the video whether he wears a beard or is shaved. The camera is fixed a little high and zooms in on his head giving the impression that his skull is bald. Quickly he takes out the glasses from his pocket and puts them on and then you can't see his eyes anymore. On October 21, he had abandoned the idea of putting them as if they were useless while interacting with the room and the lawyers. We do not understand why he wears them when he cannot see anyone and has no documents on the table in front of him or in his hand. Nevertheless, I recognize the same round face and the chin a little tight backwards as when you tighten your jaw with force. So we look at him, but it is a real torture to see him and to know that we can't tell him anything and that he can't communicate with us, to send us a message.
At some point he puts his leg on his knee in a familiar gesture and crosses his hands on his knees but he will not make any other gestures, remaining motionless and indifferent to the events. We think we're seeing the bad man we were introduced to on October 21 again. This show lasts so long that in the middle Julian Assange even falls asleep, leaning back, as if exhausted. When the judge appears, he keeps his eyes down and his gaze passive. I am so sad because I feel that he is worse than at our previous meeting. I look at John Shipton behind the scenes, he remains impassive, but I am sure he can only suffer in the face of this spectacle of suffering. However, the young men in front of us do not seem to understand that they are watching the torture of a man. As for the others, they chat, obviously distracted.
The bailiff announces the judge's arrival and gives us the order to stand up. It was Vanessa Baraitser who appeared on the stage as two other people entered the room through the door reserved for judges. Impossible to understand who they are and everything goes very fast then. Baraitser asked Julian Assange to introduce himself. He does it in a lower voice than usual, hesitant too, but to the very end in a fell swoop, "Julian Assange, July 3, 1971". Unfortunately, that is all our political prisoner friend will say. He will neither greet his lawyer, nor the court, nor pass anything on to the supporters. Or react to anything. I can hardly recognize the same man who wanted to talk so much, after superhuman efforts on October 11. Have they intimidated him since then? Is it worse than October 21? Does he really have video access to what is happening in the courtroom? We would like the court to provide us with proof of this. It is not forbidden to interact with the court. I have seen Polish detainees greet and thank their lawyers and interpreters and even raise elements of their own defence in addition to lawyers, in this same room during the hearings on 11 and 18 October.
Judge Baraitser tells him that he is here because the 28 days of legal detention have passed. It is not she who will remind him that detention is provisional, that it must be reviewed and that it is therefore an opportunity to put forward new arguments for a request for release. This is the role of the lawyer and the judge turns to Gareth Peirce to ask her if she has a motion to file. Julian Assange's defender stands up and in a tired voice explains that they are working very hard on this case (Julian Assange attends these words without a gesture, his face keeps the expression absent, sad and resigned from the beginning of the hearing) but that it is impossible to prepare a defence without an appropriate computer to which his client does not have access in Belmarsh. The following sentences all relate to this computer request. The lawyer does not mention a request for release, even on bail, or her client's state of health. It is nevertheless visible to the public that it is Julian Assange's worrying state of health that prevents him from being effective in his defence. Here again, it seems surreal to me to see lawyers deploring the consequences of the illegal solitary confinement that Julian Assange is suffering without being indignant about this psychological torture so many times denounced and, above all, without quickly implementing all the possible tools to put an end to it. We have since understood that our many letters are not distributed to him even though the prison has received them by registered mail.
Ms. Peirce's speech was delivered in a soft voice. Vanessa Baraitser smiled at her and quietly replied that computers in prison were not her responsibility and that she would do better to contact the competent authority. I feel the humiliation of this disturbing scene: a young judge looks down on a 79-year-old tenor of the bar, a person considered THE figure of the English left in the legal field and tells her that she has the wrong procedure! If I were English, I would be mortified. As a left-wing European, I am very concerned about the outcome of the Julian Assange trial because its consequences will affect us all. But here in the audience, everyone seems to be laughing at it. Baraitser turns to the image on the video and announces two dates: 13 December video appearance for extension of detention and 19 December the important "case management hearing" with physical appearance. She does not ask the prisoner if he has understood and does not bother to give him the floor, unlike on 21 October, when she was in the public spotlight. The bailiff announces her departure and while we get up the video system makes the image of Julian Assange disappear.
We remain in the corridor, helpless, trying to evacuate the violent emotions we have experienced. Most of the "ten" in the room leave the courtroom to join the demonstrators and answer journalists. John Shipton talks to Gareth Peirce in a corner and then leaves, preceded by Anu Schukla who pushes people to make sure he gets through without having to be around the crowd, as if he were at least a minister. Two women who were present on October 21 come to tell me their surprise and anger at the passive behaviour of Julian Assange's lawyer. The revelations about Mark Summers' conflicts of interest defending US interests in the Browder-Magnitsky case (2) were not lost on them. Although it is legal in the British system to defend the interests of both the accuser and the accused within the same law firm, for these left-wing activists the doubt about the integrity of the defence is cast. And yet we had not yet heard the news of Gareth Peirce's collaboration with Rand Paul, a libertarian senator who was rather hostile to whistle-blowers (3). We finally understood that the public silence of lawyers for months meant the implementation of the "connivance strategy" (4), postponing the full force of the response until the fateful hearings in February. But if this strategy fails, when the public will be banned from the courtroom, located inside the prison and whose space reserved for "relatives" has even fewer places? The lawyers will be able to say, and with them those who support this strategy of silence, "Too bad, next time we'll do better". Except there will be no second Julian Assange. The only Julian Assange who exists will have died in Guantanamo or in a psychiatric hospital in a US prison.
What energy is needed to break down its walls of violence, indifference and misunderstanding?
►Read the previous episode of the series here