JULIAN ASSANGE: PUNISHMENT AND DIGNITY
Words from Aluna's director, Clemencia Correa, at the panel
“The Assange Story: criminalization, damage, and censuring”, held on September 12, 2022 in Mexico City
“If wars can be started by lies, peace can be started by truth.”
In Latin America, we know about the persecution of human rights defenders and journalists who denounce injustices and seek the truth. They are the prey of institutional and de facto powers who feel that their interests are at stake.
In the case of Julian Assange, are we facing the dispute of truths? The truth that could be proven with evidence by a journalist, a man who made the brave decision not to keep quiet about the information he was finding on the appalling crimes against humanity that imperial U.S. politics have been unleashing and war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan along with the conditions of the prisoners in Guantánamo, among others.
Perhaps he could have kept quiet, but he was unable to. He did not because his journalistic and human ethics would not allow him to keep such horror hidden in his dreams, more so in his nightmares—this horror to which many people and peoples of the world were falling victim due to the brutality of the world power.
The other truth, founded on lies, is created and recreated by some of the mass media outlets that pay obeisance to the dominating powers in order to impose a social truth that no one can escape from their control, a narrative created to uphold [the notion] that whoever tells the truth about human rights violations should be punished, that no one can object to the status quo and much less that of a world power, a discourse in which those who fight for the truth and the pursuit of justice must be criminalized, isolated, and destroyed.
Little by little, over these eleven years, what is behind the Assange case has been minimized: the human rights violations people suffer due to subhuman conditions in prisons; war as economic sustenance placed above millions of human lives. Additionally, in many Latin American countries, the victims are investigated rather than the perpetrators.
Assange’s act of unveiling these truths has publicly displayed the secrets that had been kept hidden in vaults for a long time. Dark secrets, locked up by complicities. Secrets constructed with such great effort to maintain the political, economic, and military interests of world powers.
The origin of the name: “Wiki” means “fast” in Hawaiian, and so WikiLeaks means “fast leaks.” In one of the interviews with John, Julian Assange’s father, he shares that his son knew he could do something for all those who had not been able to know the truth or what is understood as truth. And that was what he founded: a possible space for true information about what is behind the theatrics of operations, which continues to be an option for finding out what we are facing for many people, organizations, and movements.
In March 2010, WikiLeaks presented a document, supposedly obtained from United States intelligence services, which speaks of the “risk” of this organization’s work for the military sector and of “damaging the credibility” of the site in order to neutralize it. What does neutralize mean in military language? Has damaging the reliability of WikiLeaks entailed creating a strategy for revenge, causing structural damage for Julian Assange, his family, international journalism, and various sectors of the world?
Assange is in a case of exemplary international punishment, primarily for journalists, but not only. It is a reminder that, in the twenty-first century, anyone who objects to dominant powers can suffer what he is suffering. An exemplary punishment based on psychological torture, as the Special Rapporteur on torture of the United Nations has presented, and within the framework of a strategy of terror, I would add.
The notion of torture is addressed in the United Nation’s Declaration and Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and in the Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture, among other international treaties. They describe it as acts against the physical and psychological integrity of the person carried out intentionally to inflict punishment or physical or mental suffering for purposes of criminal investigation, as a means of intimidation, as a personal punishment, as a preventive measure, or as a penalty.
Psychological torture, as stated by the Inter-American Court, intends to “obliterate the personality of the victim” or “diminish his physical or mental capacities, even if they do not cause physical pain or mental anguish.” In the case of Julian Assange, the way psychological torture has operated is clear: not being able to go out in the sunlight, isolation (to lose a sense of time and space), restricted communication, the impossibility of accessing his affective bonds, having only one hour a week to speak with his wife via cellphone. This aims to take away the sustenance of that which gives meaning to humanity: love and solidarity as possible ways of coping.
Moreover, the Inter-American Court has also included the family members of victims of human rights [violations] as victims. For us, it is more than convincing that the Assange family (his wife, father, mother, brothers, and children) is a victim of psychological torture because of the negative effects that result from being kept away from Assange: his small children suffering privations from not being able to share with their father, thinking of how he is being tortured and not being able to take care of him; the daily exhaustion of being in procedures before authorities of justice, or—I would say—of injustice; breaking the family dynamics and the family project, among others.
This has not been enough. The strategies of terror also aim to create paralysis, a powerlessness from feeling that nothing more can be done. The family has been the victim of threats, harassment, cars parked in front of their home, calls. It is does not only cause fear and anxiety from feeling that perhaps Julian will not be able to return home, but it reminds them who has control over their lives.
In one of his texts, Assange says: “Courage is contagious.” But terror is as well, and that has been the precise purpose of this strategy: to send a message of what can happen if someone does what he did; constructing a narrative to produce isolation, vilifying the image of a social activist (he doesn’t bathe, he’s dirty) so there is no solidarity, creating indifference; drawing him as a monster.
Why does the mass media insist so much on inquiring into what kind of relationship he had with his father and why they were distant for a period in their lives? What is it that they are aiming to show there? How is that useful for finding out what ethical and political values motivated Assange to tell the truth? Does it serve to show that the United States government has hurt so many women, so many children and men with their wars?
A strategy on this level could not be conducted without impunity either: the lack of legal support to condemn Assange, creating over 17 charges to show the world that a person can be sentenced to 175 years and that there is nothing that anyone can do to counteract it, neither politically nor legally. In short, it is a circle of terror, impunity, lies, and silencing.
It is clear that the problem that Assange and his family are facing is not merely about justice. U.S. authorities fear that he will continue to provide evidence of the brazen way governments act: hiding truths about crimes against humanity and arguing that the publication of confidential information threatens the national security of this country and others.
In the words of Assange: “The CIA is not afraid that someone will leak information. The CIA is terrified that people will find out that there are individuals who can reveal information and get away with it. If you demonstrate that someone did it and had a beautiful life, then there is a tremendous incentive.” What is true is that, thus far, it has not been demonstrated that the published information has affected the population of any country.
The decision to extradite will show both the correlated strength of U.S. institutions and the strength, or lack thereof, from worldwide social mobilizations and the support of some countries.
Are we really still facing medieval logic, when the only way of saving oneself was to go to the other camp in the dispute? What Martin Luther had to do for being a Protestant and hiding in the Catholic church. What Snowden has had to do, going into exile in Russia to save his life, since the United States Department of Justice has classified his participation in the surveillance program as a criminal matter.
I would like to reference the verdict of the United Kingdom’s court in deciding whether to accept the extradition process. On the one hand, it shows us that the court did not question the reasons of the United States for requesting the extradition of Assange following the publication of the information on WikiLeaks. Moreover, [the court] did not state that its government is violating Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which sets forth that “no one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” as this is precisely what Assange is experiencing at Belmarsh Prison.
Stella Moris, Assange’s wife, also warned that the judgment is “dangerous and wrong,” as the guarantees offered by the United States are “intrinsically unreliable.” This is because, even though the United States government offered guarantees that Assange would receive proper treatment to protect his mental health, it later stated that restrictive measures would not be applied unless the journalist committed an act in the future that would merit them.
One of the medical reports from this process states that Assange has a case of depression with emotional crises. On the news, he has been shown time and again as being vulnerable, underweight, and confused. I might add that others who have been torture victims have also had posttraumatic stress systems: a difficulty to establish relationships appears along with fears, anxiety, and even feelings of guilt. Could it be normal for these symptoms to show up? He was isolated for six years in an apartment thanks to the Ecuadorian government under the Correa administration and more than three years closed up in the worst conditions under the excuse of the pandemic.
The fact that Assange’s state of physical and emotional health is known is not the grave matter, but it is that, even knowing this, the government of the United Kingdom, on the one hand, keeps him in those prison conditions and is willing to issue the order of his extradition, and, one the other hand, that the United States government is bypassing all international norms before the eyes of most of the governments of Europe and Latin America and even international human rights agencies. Do they really want to see him starve to death or be driven insane to demonstrate that no one in the world can have the political, ethical, and spiritual strength to stand tall?
They have wanted to use Assange’s life as a puppet that moves in accordance with the interests of the world powers and the countries that fall into their ideology. It is true that, despite everything that the governments of the U.S., Ecuador (under the Moreno administration), and the United Kingdom have done, they have not been able to defeat Assange thanks to his and his family’s bravery and dignity while facing this process, in the company and solidarity of millions of individuals, organizations, movements, and some States that have declared their support for him in the more than eleven years of terror.
In the documentary about Assange entitled Ithaka, his father John shares stories that he reads to his daughter to try to tell her Julian’s story. The whale from Moby Dick appears there, who says that when whales swim in a herd they are faster and can escape, but when they are harassed and chased by many fishing boats, this produces uncertainty, fear, and panic that breaks up the herd; they lose their way and can be attacked one by one.
Stella, John, and Gabriel: Today, we want you to see that, in Mexico, and hopefully in other countries of Latin America and Europe as well, we are strengthening this herd to take care of the endangered whales.
We ask the world to stay together at this juncture to speak out for the truth and for justice for Assange and for many other rights defenders and journalists who are unjustly incarcerated and who face torture, as in Colombia and in Nicaragua: permission for the prisoners to have visits from their families, to be treated with dignity and the basic rights of a human being: healthy food, sleep, sunlight, exercise, fair legal proceedings. And what is most urgent today for Assange: his freedom, release from prison, and non-extradition.
I would like to conclude with a phrase from John Shipton: Julian Assange knew what would come when he said: “Our communications are spied on and saved” or “I want all the information that exists in the world to be accessible to the public.” And because of this, now the world is different. It is not the world we wanted, but rather the one they impose upon us, and the fire and light of Prometheus are still leaking through its cracks. The fire and light of Assange are present.
 La víctima ante la Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos a 25 años de su funcionamiento [The victim before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights at 25 years after its foundation]: https://www.corteidh.or.cr/tablas/R08060-4.pdf  Wikileaks warned the U.S. that it has more information: https://www.lajornadanet.com/diario/archivo/2010/noviembre/30/1.html  Ithaka: a documentary about the fight to avoid the extradition of Julian Assange to the United States, produced by his brother Gabriel Shipton.