JANUARY 4—There is relief and surprise in London today, and everywhere else the world over where those of humane and principled sentiment have gathered in behalf of Julian Assange these past many months. There is the satisfaction of a successful campaign, of triumph. The founder, publisher, and editor of WikiLeaks will not be extradited to the United States, Magistrate Judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled at the Old Bailey this morning G.M.T.
I join those who are pleased with this news, I hope it is needless to say. Certainly I am as surprised as anyone else who has followed the Assange case since Baraitser, a profoundly corrupt and unqualified jurist, began presiding in the spring of 2019.
But I come up well short of jubilation. It requires but a few moments study to recognize that Baraitser and the U.S. attorneys pressing the case for Assange’s extradition now traffic in cosmetics. They indulge us with theater in the interest of displaying fairness, humanity, reasoned legal judgment. None of these have been in evidence since Assange’s first hearing, 2 May 2019, on 17 charges of espionage and one of conspiring to tamper with government computers. There is none behind today’s ruling.
Here are my sources, as I get this commentary swiftly out the door and into The Scrum’s pages, two wire services and America’s leading mainstream daily:
Reuters. UK judge rejects extradition of 'suicide risk' Assange to United States.
RT. Assange WON’T be extradited to US on spying charges in shock decision at London’s Old Bailey.
The New York Times. U.K. Judge Blocks Assange’s Extradition to U.S., Citing Mental Health Concerns.
What are we reading here? What is the precise meaning of the British court’s ruling? What are major Western media telling us and not telling us (and what has RT missed)? These are our questions.
Baraitser’s ruling can be broken down into two parts, as follows.
In the immediately operative feature of the court judgment, Baraitser determined that Assange cannot be extradited because he is mentally unstable and in this condition could take his own life. “I find that Mr. Assange’s risk of committing suicide, if an extradition order were to be made, to be substantial,” Baraitser announced. “The overall impression is of a depressed and sometimes despairing man, who is genuinely fearful about his future.”
Assange’s fragile psychological and emotional state is beyond question, various physicians, as well as the U.N.’s special rapporteur on torture, having said so repeatedly after visiting Assange during his time at Belmarsh, a maximum-security prison in southeast London. John Pilger, Craig Murray, and others prominent in the Assange cause have also reported this.
But we must immediately note: Baraitser has been spotlessly indifferent to Assange’s physical and mental deterioration—and, of course, the conditions at Belmarsh that have caused his tragic decline. Baraitser the humane as of 4 January? Immediately a contradiction we must consider for its meaning.
The second part of the ruling appears to have been carefully considered and then presented in the clearest terms. Baraitser determined in the United States’ favor on every legal point—except those she failed to address. She professed to find no evidence that the U.S. extradition request was politically motivated. She rejected defense assertions that extradition was an unlawful assault on freedom of speech and on a free press. She said there was no cause to argue that Assange would not get a fair trial in the United States. She seems not to have considered open-and-shut evidence that the CIA spied on Assange during his years of asylum at the Ecuadoran embassy in London, including when Assange was in conference with his defense attorneys—a breach that by law required her to dismiss the U.S. case.
If you can manage the paradox, Assange cannot be extradited but the U.S. won its case for extradition more or less entirely. We must now draw conclusions as to what this is all about.
Baraitser’s purposes are several, in my view.
She has given the flimsy, superficial impression that the court has weighed the Assange case carefully and without prejudice—this to counter incessant reports of its preposterous corruptions these past 21 months. Neither the U.K. nor the U.S. wants the realities of the court’s conduct to follow Assange across the ocean, so tainting the American proceeding.
Two, she has left the door wide open for Assange to be extradited at any time it is deemed opportune. This is the point of the careful parsing of the legal judgments in favor of the U.S. request. All that remains is for the court to determine, on one or another basis, that Assange is no longer suicidal.
Three, and this is closely related to the above point, Baraitser has preserved British and by extension American prerogative. This requires very brief explanation.
For authoritarian bureaucracies, prerogative is an important source of power. Law as written is left sufficiently open to interpretation that sequestered bureaucrats can use it as they wish to justify how they govern or rule. I learned this while studying the Confucian aspects of dynastic China and modern Japan: There must be law, as a subject or citizen can read in books, but let us keep it as vague as possible so that it is always on our side and never a constraint. At the extreme, and the extreme proves not uncommon, the result is arbitrary rule.
This concern with the preservation of prerogative is part of what we have just witnessed.
The U.S. has already determined to appeal today’s ruling. Assange’s attorneys will on Wednesday request bail terms for his release pending the outcome of this appeal. It will be truly a victory if Assange is let out of Belmarsh this week, given the dreadful conditions he has had to endure there.
But this will not end well. Julian Assange is no closer to safety today than he has been until now.
There are occasions one writes commentaries hoping one is dead wrong. This is one such occasion. However, I am bound to say Assange’s extradition remains as it was, a matter of time. The difference now is that those determining this outcome are no longer required to submit to legal proceedings. It is up to their arbitrary judgment. The prerogative rests with them.
Footnote: Raritan, which publishes my longer essays, brought out one on the Assange case a few months ago. In it I addressed some of the questions raised here, and others, at greater length. For those interested, “Assange Behind Glass” can be found here.