Dr John Jiggens & Mia Armitage
The ‘slow motion crucifixion of Julian Assange’ is a poetic line coined by Ciaron O’Reilly, a London-based member of the Catholic Worker Movement and devoted WikiLeaks founder supporter. The terrible saga starring Mr Assange inspired Mr O’Reilly’s poetry.
But Mr O’Reilly makes for an interesting character himself, having kept constant vigil outside the Ecuadorian Embassy where Mr Assange had asylum for six years.
The word ‘vigil’ seems inadequate in Mr O’Reilly’s case: this is a man who sleeps in the street outside Mr Assange’s quarters wherever, it seems, they may be.
The latest venue is Belmarsh Prison, London’s highest-security jail locally known, Mr O’Reilly said, as London’s Guantanamo Bay.
The Assange advocate said the UK ‘Special Branch moved in’ four hours after he had to leave his vigil for personal family reasons.
Mr O’Reilly said he and fellow advocates for Mr Assange think it’s important to maintain a visual solidarity presence outside the prison.
Mr Assange is kept in his cell 23 hours per day with half an hour in the recreation yard and half an hour to compete with other prisoners to make phone calls.
‘So he’s in no way able to prepare a defence,’ Mr O’Reilly said.
‘You put a person like that, in bad health, into a prison, you know it’s very easy to pick up viruses,’ says Mr O’Reilly.
Recently, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Professor Nils Melzer, visited Mr Assange with a psychiatrist.
Professor Melzer said treatment over the past seven years of the former Walkley-award-winning journalist by democratic states amounted to torture and was in violation of UN Conventions.
Too sick for trial
The UN had previously released a report describing Mr Assange’s asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy as ‘arbitrary detention’ but Mr O’Reilly said ‘the British government just ignored that’.
He said he worried Mr Assange’s health had deteriorated to the point he was no longer able to stand trial and participate in court hearings.
‘Secondly, I must say I’m appalled at the consistent, sustained, concerted abuse this man has been exposed to at the hands of the democratic states over a period of almost a decade,’ Professor Melzer told the ABC.
He also accused judicial systems of abusing their power to harass the WikiLeaks founder.
Mr Assange appeared via video link when facing a US extradition request hearing in a UK court.
‘No fair trial’ in US
The UN Special Rapporteur said he was gravely alarmed at the risks Mr Assange would be exposed to if extradited to the United States. Those risks included a ‘politicised show-trial’ in violation of fundamental human rights, Professor Melzer said.
‘If there are criminal offences that he is alleged to have committed,’ said Professor Melzer, ‘by all means he needs to respond to that in a court of law’.
‘But then he needs to be given adequate means to prepare his defence,’ he said.
‘He cannot be under the constant threat of being extradited to the United States where he is not going to receive a fair trial.’
Not a journalist
The hearing was a chance for the US to lay out its case for extraditing Mr Assange on the basis of seventeen new charges filed against him under the Espionage Act.
Normally, a journalist in the US would be exempt from the charges on the basis that leaks of classified information are in the public interest. But the US government was arguing Mr Assange was not a journalist, leaving open the question of how a journalist is identified, and who gets to make that call.
The question might be particularly relevant in an age of citizen journalism but for Mr Assange, who won Australia’s most prestigious journalism prize, the Walkely award for Outstanding Contribution to Journalism, in 2011, it seems redundant.
Media under attack
It is was the same work that sparked the US campaign against him: the WikiLeaks release of secret US army footage showing soldiers in a helicopter gunning down unarmed civilians in Iraq. Several people were killed, including two journalists working for Reuters news agency.
When even the most highly commended journalists are subject to torture and harassment from democratic states and others are investigated by the police, what protection and incentives are there for less highprofile reporters to do their work?
Here in Australia, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) raided the home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst over her reporting on government plans to spy on civilians. Then they carried out another search warrant on the ABC, in relation to investigations of The Afghan Files by Dan Oakes and Sam Clark.
The Afghan Files told us of horrific acts allegedly committed by Australian soldiers on duty in Afghanistan.
The head of the AFP, Neil Gaughan, said he defended freedom of the press.
But the AFP changed its statement to say the search warrants related to parts six and seven of the Crimes Act whereas at first they’d only mentioned part six.
Part six only referred to leaks from public servants but section seven applied to anyone and could lead to seven years’ jail.
The government said it had nothing to do with the raids and the opposition said that was hard to believe but would wait to find out for sure.
From South Australia, Senator Rex Patrick for Centre Alliance, formerly the Nick Xenophon Party, is calling for a referendum.
Senator Patrick wants the constitution changed to include a clause protecting journalists and freedom of speech, as in the United States. He is also calling for an inquiry into the federal police raids.
One thing is clear: now, more than ever, independent media need your support.
To hear the full interview with Ciaron O’Reilly and excerpts of Professor Nils Melzer’s interview, go to Community Newsroom at www.bayfm.org.