MEPs said last night that they had been denied access as observers to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s extradition hearing at the Old Bailey.
About 40 people, including representatives of non-governmental organisation (NGOs) and international political observers, were told they had been denied remote access to the court on the first day of the hearing.
The MEPs include Maria Arena (Belgium), Clare Daly (Ireland), Sira Rego (Spain), Luke Flanagan (Ireland), Anne-Sophie Pelletier (France), Mick Wallace (Ireland), Miguel Urbán Crespo (Spain) and Markéta Gregorová (Czech Republic).
Gregorová, who attended Assange’s extradition hearing at Woolwich Crown Court earlier this year, said: “If independent observers are not allowed to observe this case, whatever you think of Assange and his guilt, we cannot have blind trust in the fairness of the trial.
“To negotiate and promise observing the trial virtually, set everything up and then let 40 people wait pointlessly is a whole another level and it is not about unpreparedness.”
Daly said she had written to the UK Ministry of Justice and had been given permission to join the official video link to the courtroom. “We cannot, as observers, conclude anything about the fairness or impartiality of these hearings if we cannot be there,” she said.
“When I attempted to log in to monitor the proceedings on Monday last week, I was left sitting in a virtual waiting room for several hours. The same goes for my MEP colleague Mick Wallace. We found out via Twitter that the judge had revoked our access.”
Judge refused application for 40 people to join cloud video platform
Judge Vanessa Baraitser told the court on the first day of the hearing on 7 September that the court had sent out invitations in error to people to attend the hearing on the court’s cloud video platform (CVP).
She said she was “genuinely concerned” about maintaining the integrity of the court if members of the public were allowed to attend remotely.
Someone outside the jurisdiction of the UK had circulated a photograph of Assange taken from the court video feed on social media, in breach of UK law, said Baraitser.
“I have been given an additional list of 40 people who have expressed a wish to attend remotely,” she said. “This is something I can consider, but will only do so if both parties agree and it is in the interests of justice.”
The judge ruled that once live streaming takes place, the court cannot manage the proceedings and can manage them even less if observers are outside the jurisdiction of the UK.
“On that basis, I have refused the current remaining applications for CVP,” she said.
Dustin Hoffmann, assistant to German MEP Martin Sonneborn, said he had access to the hearing in an overflow room with a video link set up in the Old Bailey to accommodate social distancing.
“It is very important for political and NGO monitors to have access to the court so they can make sure this is a fair trial,” he said. “This is a very important case and, without any doubt, it is politically influenced.”
Hoffmann said the judge appeared to have been referring to an incident in February, when somebody present in the visitors’ gallery took a picture from the courtroom. “I have not seen any pictures of the video link anywhere,” he said.
“Technically it should be possible to provide access to the 40 people who had their access revoked, and it is very alarming that the judge thinks that NGOs and political monitors cannot be trusted.”
NGOs say they are unable to monitor Assange hearings
Rebecca Vincent, director of international campaigns for Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), said NGOs had also been denied access to the proceedings after applying to join the remote video link.
Vincent said she was initially admitted to the remote video system before being “kicked out”. “I couldn’t log back in after that, so we have no access to this hearing unless we can get physically into the court,” she said.
“We find we queue for hours and we have to honestly employ guerrilla-style tactics to get in every day and the goal posts are constantly shifting, so we have to try different things.”
Vincent said she did not have sight of Assange and was unable to assess his physical condition.
“This was an important point in February, when we could see he was not well and could not hear and on one or two occasions the judge even started proceedings without him being physically present,” she said.
Other NGOs, including Amnesty International and PEN International, were also unable to access the court proceedings.
Naomi Colvin, UK/Ireland programme director for the NGO Blueprint for Free Speech, said: “One of the reasons why the remote access issue has been so knotty is that civil society observers and NGOs were told that they couldn’t come in person but to rely on the video link, which is why it was particularly bad that the video link access was cut off.”
Colvin said the Ministry of Justice should not be afraid of allowing civil society observers into the hearings.
In other high-profile cases, such as the Johnny Depp libel hearing at the Royal Court of Justice where there were three overflow courts, the UK has been able to facilitate greater in-person access, she added.
Vincent said RSF and some other NGOs try to monitor cases in countries across the world and are usually accommodated because the role of NGO observers is understood, accommodated and respected. “It’s only been in this case in the UK that we’ve been treated like this,” she said.
Daly said she had not expected to have problems accessing a London courtroom. “You would think the UK government would want to exclude any doubts about the impartiality of proceedings in as political a case as the Assange case,” she said. “But unfortunately, the Ministry of Justice does not seem to want anyone to be there.”
Spanish MEP Crespo added: “Not only the freedom of information is at stake, but also the ability to seek justice for very serious war crimes and human rights violations.”
Read more about Assange’s September extradition hearing at the Old Bailey