Dr John Jiggens and Mia Armitage*
‘The psychological torture of Julian continues,’ said John Shipton, father of detained Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, late last week from London.
After nearly ten months’ waiting in isolation at London’s Belmarsh Prison, known to some as ‘Hellmarsh’, it was finally time for Mr Assange to face lawyers from the US Department of Justice (DoJ) as they argued their case for his extradition from the UK.
Mr Shipton sat in the Woolwich Crown Court every day for his son’s four-day extradition hearing, accompanied by Mr Assange’s brother, uncle, aunt and cousin.
At the end of each day, he made time to speak to Bay FM Community Newsroom reporter Dr John Jiggens.
Assange unable to hear his hearing
A series of underground tunnels connects Her Majesty’s Prison Belmarsh to the Belmarsh Magistrate’s Court next-door, where Woolwich Crown Court was in session for one of history’s most publicly anticipated trials.
It was through those tunnels that Mr Assange was brought handcuffed to court and into a glass cage at the back.
The Walkley Award-winning journalist was thereby isolated from his lawyers and family and told the court he was having trouble hearing his own trial.
Les Gilets Jaunes feed the masses
Meanwhile, hundreds of Mr Assange’s supporters protested outside the court when they discovered they would not be able to observe the hearings because there was no room.
There were reportedly only 24 seats available to the public but by the time Mr Assange’s family and friends sat down, only ten were left.
More than a hundred members of France’s ‘Yellow Vests’ movement had travelled to the court by bus and quickly tried to cheer fellow supporters via a pop-up café, handing out coffee, croissants and soup in London’s late-winter rain.
Inside, the small court was overflowing with journalists and observers from organisations such as Reporters Without Frontiers, The International Federation of Journalists and members of European parliaments, there to observe the fairness of the hearings after widespread suspicion it would be a show trial.
Day One: hope for Assange begins
‘The prosecution started off with the same fraudulent accusations that have been around since the beginning, that sources were endangered, which is simply not true,’ Mr Shipton told Dr Jiggens after the first day of hearings.
‘The second aspect of the prosecution’s case was an argument that there were no redactions done and [of] data dumping, both of which are fraudulent,’ Mr Shipton continued.
‘I counted 18 camera crew,’ Mr Shipton said, ‘Channel 9 was there, Channel 7 was there, SBS was there and later on in the day the ABC was here’.
Mr Shipton said defence lawyer Edward Fitzgerald’s opening presentation on behalf of Julian was ‘comprehensive’ and ‘easy for the lay people to follow’.
UK law trumps treaty, judge says
Many Assange supporters had hoped the Australian citizen wouldn’t be extradited to the US because a US-UK extradition treaty forbade political extraditions and the US charges against Mr Assange related to the political crime of spying.
But on day two of the extradition hearing, British District Judge Vanessa Baraitser delivered a legal bomb shell: the treaty was separate from UK law and therefore had no force on the court.
Furthermore, Judge Baraitser explained, political exemption didn’t appear in UK extradition law.
While Judge Baraitser invited Mr Assange’s lawyers to address the argument, it was a major blow to the defence.
Assange denied free access to lawyers
Later, negotiations with the judge to have Mr Assange moved into the body of the court so he could converse freely with his lawyers failed.
Mr Shipton described three American lawyers from the US DoJ sitting behind US prosecutor James Lewis QC, making and exchanging notes privately and consistently throughout the trial.
But he told Dr Jiggens his son couldn’t pass notes, let alone sit near his lawyers and everything Mr Assange said was overheard thanks to microphones in his glass cage.
Mr Assange was therefore unable to give instruction in the flow of the court, his father said.
Judge Baraitser said on day three she was unsure whether Mr Assange would still be legally defined as ‘in custody’ if released from the cage.
Mr Lewis said the prosecution was open to the idea, so long as Mr Assange was handcuffed and kept under guard.
‘A sadistic ruling’, says Assange’s father
The following day, British defence lawyer Marc Summers QC produced evidence that ‘throughout the world this practice of putting people in a glass box to testify, to involve themselves in their own case, was being abandoned’, said Mr Shipton by telephone.
Mr Summers argued due process required Mr Assange to be ‘equally armed’, Mr Shipton said.
But again Judge Baraitser delivered disappointment to the defence.
‘The judge ruled that this was not possible, that Julian had to stay in the glass box,’ Mr Shipton said.
‘This is a sadistic ruling.’
Assange: descending into the ‘dungeons’ of Belmarsh
‘Julian has now been separated from ordinary converse amongst his friends and supporters and lawyers, he still has to look at them and be separate from them,’ Mr Shipton said on the last day of the February hearings.
Mr Shipton said if his son and the defence lawyers wanted ‘a private moment’, they had to ‘break the court and descend into the dungeons below’ for a confidential briefing before the court reassembled.
‘It’s very sadistic, a disgrace,’ Mr Shipton said, ‘the psychological torture of Julian continues, it’s now in its tenth year’.
Assange back in jail
Judge Baraitser adjourned Mr Assange’s hearings after four days – a day earlier than scheduled – and ordered the journalist back into Belmarsh Prison indefinitely.
Mr Assange was already serving an earlier sentence of 50 weeks’ jail for breaching UK bail conditions when he took refuge at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2012.
The US extradition case against the journalist who let the world know about alleged US war crimes in Iraq is due to continue in Woolwich Crown Court on May 18 London time.