French activism, intense struggles and ghost hearings at the Westminster Magistrate Court – Part 1

Part 1 of an account of what happened at Westminster Magistrates Court on December the 19th, 2019, by Monika Karbowska. Translated using Deepl.

By Monika Karbowska

Part 1 – December 19

The whole world now knows that the person judging Julian Assange, Vanessa Baraitser, has been called a “wicked witch” by one of our comrades in the audience. This is an epilogue that could have been jubilant for us, but the joy of the public tackle should not make us forget that the situation remains very serious: Julian Assange is going badly, worse and worse as the fateful hour of the “final extradition hearing” approaches and the lawyers’ “winning” strategy remains as mysterious for us as it was 6 months ago. Moreover, the ultra-secret and secure phantom hearing on 20 December for the European Investigation Order, during which Julian was physically brought in and was therefore 20 metres away from us, was not organised to reassure us. Two crucial, hard and intense days that exhausted us. But two days of almost physical struggle to see him, to convey to him our support through shouts and slogans, to protest against the injustice of this unprecedented repression on a single man isolated and sickened by torture.

I arrived a day in advance in London with the aim of understanding where and how the mysterious hearing of 20 December announced by some media will take place, but without any information being filtered through Julian Assange’s lawyers or Wikileaks sites. Along the way we learn that the final trial at the end of February will take place at the Woolwich court, next to Belmarsh prison, in a 25-seat courtroom with a large gallery open to journalists. How will we, human rights associations and committed activists be able to get in without the lack of space for everyone degenerating into tension and fighting? This is an obvious problem that the court grossly underestimates. For while the principle of “first come, first served” is fairer than the lists of authority drawn up by “Greeekemmy”, it does not solve the equation of lack of space. And we want more because we know that it is precisely popular pressure on the British authorities that can save Julian Assange from extradition.

However, for once the Westminster Magistrate Court has given itself the means to implement tough but fair rules of organisation. Our team arrived between 6.40 and 7.15 am. The Greekemmy group arrives at about 7.30am and the people will be more diverse than usual. At 9 o’clock we enter the building and we see on the list in the hall the name of Julian Assange at the head of the extradited people in room 3. In front of the room we will meet the head of the court bailiffs who regulates the flow with the security manager. She is very polite, makes us line up in front of the door and reassures us that the queue will be respected, even though we sometimes feel worried as soon as the word “list” is mentioned. But fortunately, she remains inflexible in the face of attempts to free ride. The journalists are much more numerous than usual, they sit on the seats in the corridor and talk. The team of lawyers is complete: Gareth Peirce, Mark Summers and Edward Fitzgerald the barrister we didn’t expect to find so soon at a simple case management hearing. Assistants carry heavy files with “Assange” written on the back. An elderly man whose face is familiar to me is standing right behind us. It is Tarik Ali whom Julian Assange met in 2012 during the Occupy London movements. Clair Dobbin is the head of the prosecution team, two young men and an older man. They lock themselves in a consultation room because the hearing does not start right away.

Journalists may enter at 9:30 a.m., in a group of ten. This time Joseph Farell has a press card and enters with them. The others protest. I am afraid that Mitie’s manager will sacrifice our seats to their indignation and I rush with my colleagues from Wikijustice as quickly as possible into the public box. Then the bailiff and the security manager bring in another 5 journalists who huddle together. The lawyers and the accusers take their places. The secretary is the same as on November 18 and December 13.

We sit in the front row in the middle. Tarik Ali is sitting next to John on my right. Behind us, as the group of “Greekemmy” clarifies who will take the remaining 9 seats, I notice a still young woman with brown hair and round face sitting in the back. She will turn out to be Stella Morris who had accompanied Julian Assange to the Ecuadorian apartment from 2015 until the end. I am intrigued by the presence beside her of a teenager between 15 and 18 years old who looks like her. What can a young person do in this kind of trial?. At 10:00 a.m. Clair Dobbin is in place for the prosecution in the front row. The three men accompanying him sit right in front of the screen where Julian Assange will appear. I manage after the hearing to corner the oldest one and ask him what his role is. He smiles and answers “observers”. On the prosecution’s side? Yes. They’re the “Americans” we’re looking for. Everything is almost in place, the security guards tell us to turn off the cell phones. A woman says she is handicapped and demands to be able to use a computer. Journalists are still protesting last-minute press cards. Apparently doctors have not been able to get in even though they have been assured that they will return with the list. The tense and suffocating atmosphere is weighing on us. The discontent is justified, but the security guards tell us that room 1 is impossible because it is not equipped. So we have to physically bring Julian in; this will not take place on Thursday but it will be possible on Friday for something other than his trial… Strange, the priorities of this court!

Vanessa Baraitser comes in at 10 o’clock, we get up. Very quickly appears in the video on the right a dark room with 3 blue seats and the sign “HMP Belmarsh Visitor court room 1” with the small window. The judge asks: “officer, Mr Assange please”. The guard answers but remains invisible. One to two minutes go by. A silhouette passes behind the window, a slightly doddering gait, and Julian Assange appears. He sits as if with difficulty on the first seat. You can see half of him. Baraitser tells him to sit in the middle seat, which he does. This time he is filmed frontally and up close, which gives an impression of volume, and that he is not as thin as on December 13. He is wearing grey trousers, a light shirt and a sky blue sweater that seems a bit large. He is wearing his glasses and looking up. His hair is short, his beard is short. Next to us when Tarik Ali saw Julian, he shouted in fear. Something like “It’s not Julian, it can’t be”! looking at us in amazement. Alas yes, and since October, for the fifth time, we are getting used to this brutal show.

Baraister asks him if he can hear, he answers “I think so”, “yes I think so”. The judge pronounces his name and date of birth herself and asks him to confirm. He says “Correct” and puts his hands folded on his lap. His gestures are slow, his words are slow. He makes an effort, discreetly pushing his head forward as if he needed to get closer to focus. This time he doesn’t have black rings around his eyes, but he looks exhausted and remains motionless and prostrate. As always, an impression of sadness and indignation overwhelms us. Will we finally be able one day to express this anger?

Vanessa Baraitser introduces the “case management hearing”, the preparation of the final extradition hearings at the end of February. She gives the floor to Fitzgerald. Then one of the women behind me exclaims that we can’t hear anything. She is roundly called to order by the security officer, who threatens to force her out. Master Fitzgerald announces that the full extradition hearing is scheduled for 5 days but it would take 3 or 4 weeks, which is not false. He underlines the “great difficulty to see Mr. Assange”. He remains very polite, he even talks about being grateful for the extra time. Tarik Ali looks at us with an astonished look. I think he has never seen British “justice” or Julian Assange’s lawyers in action. I make him understand with my gaze that all this is unworthy of us but no longer astonishes us…

However, Edward Fitzgerald finally raises the political problem: for the first time since the beginning of this whole affair, it is finally said that extradition is forbidden for political reasons, and the reason is political! Of course Julian Assange’s lawyer does not go so far as to ask for the immediate release of his client… He says that 21 witnesses must appear, then he mentions a summary of the Spanish trial for spying in the Ecuadorian apartment which is obviously used as a procedural vice to counter the extradition request. I find it difficult to grasp the logic of this. To say that Julian Assange’s trial is not fair because the Americans were aware of their target’s defence strategy does not seem to me sufficient to invalidate the fact that the United States is giving itself the right to prosecute a journalist for his publications. Worse, I have the impression that this persistent idea of “technicality” precisely removes the issue of substance: the scandal of this exorbitant requirement to silence and punish someone who is not an American national and has published outside their borders. In 2011 the same lawyers were convinced that they would bring down the European arrest warrant on a technicality. But they lost because the European form is politically drafted in such a way that its formal writing cannot be challenged. It is the substantive defect that must be examined; that is to say, the complete file in the issuing country…Julian Assange had lost his freedom and now his health in this game of failed formal defects.

At 10.10 am Julian Assange approaches the screen, tries to follow, puts his arms on his thighs, in a position of listening and attention, for 1 or 2 minutes. Fitzgerald proposes January 16 as the deadline for submitting the evidence. But Clair Dobbin objects. When she speaks Julian Assange has a backward movement, his shoulders sag a little more, his gaze is empty. He can no longer concentrate. The more discussions about dates go on, the more he struggles not to sleep, like when you’re exhausted and the pressure of sleep is too much. Fitzgerald describes the date of 10 January as the “guillotine” (I liked the term but the famous instrument should have been turned here against the ruling elites): he describes the enormous files to be studied, 40,000 pages of Chelsea Manning’s alone and the documents from the Spanish trial. Moreover, it would take at least a day and a half to prove that the court does not allow extradition for political reasons. In my opinion, it would take longer. Julian Assange stands there like he can’t hear. It is confusing and disturbing to see that the accused cannot participate in his trial and that we are getting used to having everyone speak for him. The lawyer then appears as a kind of guardian in the mode – he is sick so the lawyer takes his place. The “Americans” follow the events with attention. In the battle of the dates, the judge doesn’t even pay attention to Assange anymore, she talks to the lawyers and to Clair Dobbin, who is defending his butter bitterly. In the absence of a British prosecutor, the war was fought directly between Julian Assange’s lawyers and the Americans. The British state has even abandoned its role as arbitrator and abdicated its sovereignty… Julian Assange looks more than ever like a human being in a cage. I can see that he makes an effort to touch the papers in the file he is holding in his hand, but cannot. Fitzgerald then asks why the Belmarsh court was chosen for the trial, but the judge doesn’t answer. The lawyer then looks at the video screen, but Julian Assange says nothing and the lawyer is satisfied and does not insist. While he could have spoken louder and seeing his client’s non-response, he says “stop, we can’t go on like this”.

This is even more blatant during the 10:30 a.m. break. While the judge is gone, the courtroom goes about its business. Lawyers stand aside. We see a small square on the screen that shows what Julian Assange sees from the courtroom: he sees only the judge and the front row. Logic would dictate that his lawyers talk to him, greet him, nothing, they run out of his field of vision and he remains alone. On the other hand, the three “Americans” stand up. They are standing in front of us and look at him with a greedy and satisfied look on their faces. They look like they are watching their game. We are behind them and we see their merry-go-round, their smiles heard. We can’t hear what they’re saying to each other, but they’re obviously happy. We are bubbling in our helplessness and we can’t wait for this break to end. Because those who have the right to speak to Julian Assange do not do so and we are forbidden to speak to him, to write to him and to give him the slightest sign… We’re being made to participate in the isolation that we’re inflicting on him. Finally, ten minutes later, the ping-pong of dates starts again. Everyone is talking about “more flexibility” and pulls out his diary: “‘Can you do January 20th, January 21st? No, I can’t do that. Then maybe the 22nd? Let’s see if those dates are possible.” It’s confusing for us.

Vanessa Baraitser finally turns to Julian Assange: “You will appear on January 14th for the call over hearing and January 23rd for the next management video hearing.” No one bothered to ask for a physical trial anymore. Baraitser doesn’t even ask him anymore if he understood. It’s obviously so bent that she doesn’t care. He doesn’t react to the announcement of the dates. Then he says, “I’ve heard the program”. I distinctly hear the word “schedule”. His voice is hesitant and choppy. That’s when John gets up and approaches the window. Without shouting he says in a loud voice “I enjoyed the pantomime with the Judge in “wicked witch”, the wicked witch “… John utters three sentences. The emotion is at its peak. It’s stupor. The security guard enters our space and grabs John by the arm, but John resists. I take the manager’s arm gently to calm him down… In a confined space this hand-to-hand confrontation with the ultimate institutional violence is strange. Julian must have heard the beginning of John’s scream before the guard realized and turned off the screen. Baraister runs away, Fitzgerald and Dobbin who were talking to each other are stunned, motionless, gawked, face to face, the audience is evacuated, as one feels the fear that the emotion raised by John might degenerate.

I’m so hot that I get dizzy and lose my balance trying to pick up my things. Security is all around me, they’re afraid we’re going to invent yet another action. We find ourselves in the corridor a little stunned. I grab the American and ask him who he is. Then we see Joseph Farell, Tarik Ali, Stella Morris locked in consultation room number 2. The young boy is also sitting on the floor there. When he comes out I try to understand his role in this case. He tells me he’s a student doing research with Gareth Peirce. The hardest part, the hearing the next day, is still ahead of us.

But in the evening I can relax, telling myself that with a bit of luck Vanessa Baraitser will go home, meet her family tonight and think that she has been called a “wicked witch” by a lucidly desperate man just a few days before Christmas. Maybe she’ll be tired of taking on this role and will give Julian Assange the greatest gift: justice…

We understand that the media presenting tomorrow’s hearing as the “legal team” trial against the Spanish company Undercover Global accused of violating privacy and corruption does not tell us who exactly the plaintiff is. We do not know whether Julian Assange is the plaintiff or a witness. The next day will be another intense and active day, spent tearing out the information withheld by the court and trying at all costs to get a glimpse of Julian in the prisoners’ van and in the courtroom. Undoubtedly an important moment in his trial about which we know nothing for sure and from which the journalists will be absent.

Part 2 – December 20

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