Julian Assange on 19 February 2020 in the Westminster Magistrate Court – Storytelling put to the test in court

by Monika Karbowska. Translated with the Deepl software. Original in French here

The tenth trip to London to attend a pre-trial hearing for Julian Assange. Some people told me that since the “big trial” starts with a lot of media attention next Monday, it’s not worth exhausting myself on these express trips. Indeed, tired I may be by this incessant battle to organize and finance the trip and the stay, sleeping in the uncomfortable Flixbus without forgetting the perpetual uncertainty of not knowing if I will have access to the courtroom as a member of the public. But each hearing is the only opportunity to see Julian Assange, to testify tirelessly about his condition, to mark by our presence the refusal to see him walled up in the dungeons of indifference. Nothing is better than facing the raw reality of the courtroom to realize the illusions of media storytelling, ever more implausible with regard to Julian Assange’s situation.

This time it’s even worse: my bus is four hours late. Without any plausible explanation other than a pearl strike, several ferries on the Calais-Dover line are cancelled during the night of 18 to 19 February. When our bus finally crosses the channel and heads for London, I already know I’ll be too late for court. Arriving around 7 am in the suburbs, the bus gets lost in the morning traffic jams of the capital. I am nervous, but resigned to let go because I know that anything can happen in this case. Indeed, surprise: at 7:30 a.m., my friend John gives me the news on the phone: since the day before, rumors have been circulating that the court has postponed Julian Assange’s hearing until the afternoon. But since no one trusts the court’s announcements anymore, the activists are waiting. It’s a pity that the lawyers didn’t bother to warn us of this change in the schedule. As soon as I get out of Victoria Station, I run to the subway. It is 9.30am when I arrive at Westminster Court, the door is already open. Julian Assange’s name is, as usual, at the top of the list of 25 names of Poles and Romanians to be extradited today.

I find the activists and journalists scattered in the waiting room. I greet friends and acquaintances. Finally, at the end of these long months spent here, we form a kind of “family of hearts” of Julian Assange present here in the heart of the turmoil against all odds, despite our differences. The atmosphere is warmer when there is no official “chiourme guard” to control our conversations. We exchange skeptical remarks about the court decision. What is the real reason? An elderly man is upset because he has travelled all night from the north of England to attend the hearing and will not be able to stay in the afternoon. John is comforting him. I’m answering questions from a Sputnik reporter about Wikijustice’s strategy. We are also discussing the threat that the Belmarsh Magistrate Court will not allow the public free entry next week at the full extradition hearing. When at 10:00 am, the secretary comes out of room 3 and announces that the hearing of Mr. Julian Assange is postponed to 3:15 pm nobody believes him. Everyone remains to wait, we take turns at the information desk or the annoyed employee refuses to answer us. The secretary has to go over it several times to convince us that he is telling the truth.

After 10.30 am, we resign ourselves to go and wait at the “café des avocats” and we stay there for several hours. A little before 1 p.m., I decide to return to the waiting room of the court. I don’t want to lose my place in the queue after a 12-hour journey. Around 2 p.m. the space fills up. The journalists are back, I notice the presence of Naomi Colvin as well as the absence of “Greekeemmy”. I know the importance of the press conference in Paris the next day, I tell myself that the “official relatives” are preparing it. Finally, 14 journalists will be present in front of the door and 11 will be able to enter with an accreditation card. Most of them are the same as at the previous hearings. In front of the door are two English men whom I thought were journalists, and who will finally be the first to take their place among the public. At their pace and their political conversations, I understand that they may be left-wing activists. We form a tight line in front of the door behind which the hearings of the last four defendants on the list, Slovakian, Polish and Lithuanian, are taking place. The court will be empty when the Julian Assange case comes up.

A little before 3 p.m., Gareth Peirce and Edward Fitzgerald arrive. I see the young MC MacGrath similarly, all dressed in black, joining them. On the accusation side, I notice Clair Dobbin’s collaborator, but not the latter. Mitie’s security guards are accompanied by a tall, stern-looking woman wearing a police uniform. She’ll check that our cell phones are turned off at the entrance to the room and she’ll watch us in the stall. Is it the effect of our emotional outbursts on the end of the hearings or our criticism of the passes that Mitye gives to some “officials” at the expense of others? Perhaps both. However, it is always Mitye’s manager who manages the admissions. At 3.10 p.m. we meet in the public box. I am forced to sit too far in the back which will prevent me from seeing Julian on the screen on the right. But I can’t do otherwise.

The lawyers are quickly in place, but Mc McGrath is given the name “scholar” (student? researcher? intern?) by the secretary and has to sit in the last row. The prosecution is represented by a man, young and redheaded, different from the prosecutor of December 19. At 3:12 p.m., when the judge is not yet there, the secretary takes the remote control and calls “officer, Belmarsh please”. The screen lights up on a room with dark walls, in the middle two armchairs, also dark, black or purple. Behind the chairs is a large “HMP Belmarsh” sign and at the back is a door. For a short moment we see a strong guard dressed in a black uniform. The secretary tells him to bring “Mr. Assange”. The man goes out and then we can see the silhouette of Julian Assange appearing in the doorway. As always, I am seized by emotion and so I don’t notice that the guard follows him into the stall.

Julian Assange is wearing black jogging pants, a beige sweater and a white shirt with the collar out over the sweater. His hair is properly cut and styled, and he has been shaved. He wears glasses that he puts on his head as a headband. I have the impression that he is less slimmed down than he was a month ago, but maybe the jogging is hiding his real stoutness. His face looks less emaciated, rounder, and his features less hollowed out, but maybe it’s just the effect of the camera filming him more closely. I can make out his sad expression, an absent look, but I can’t say more because I’m too far from the screen. On the other hand, I’m sure I can see his gait not very sure. It seems that he limps when he enters the box, especially since he carries with both hands a large file full of white sheets. When he sits down, he first puts the file on his knees, his hands flat on it and doesn’t move. Then he puts his left leg on his right knee and bends a little to the left. Then he puts the heavy file on his knees, opens it slowly and starts to read the left page. He stays at least 5 minutes this way, he does not raise his head, does not look at the court, nor at his lawyers, nor at the judge when she enters. His lawyers don’t greet him either, which will never cease to amaze me, whereas the official storytelling, notably at the press conference in Paris on Thursday 20 February, mentions a “international team” of French, Spanish, English and Belgian bar leaders that he is supposed to lead.

It must be said that sometimes the contradictions of storytelling take on surrealistic overtones. For example, all fall and winter long, I’ve heard Gareth Peirce here complain that he never gets to see his client. In Paris, on February 20, I learn that the talented Frenchman Dupont Moretti managed in a jiffy what the poor Briton couldn’t manage to get: while he was never Julian Assange’s lawyer, not being one of his relatives, he was able to make a 3-hour visit to Belmarsh prison having barely waited 2 weeks to book it! I could push a nationalist “cock-a-doodle-doo” if I wasn’t so skeptical of the contradictions in the speech. In the same way, Dupont Moretti now describes in the media the hard fight he is waging to obtain the right of asylum on the basis that Julian Assange would have stayed in France from 2007 to 2010. France requires all non-European nationals to have a work contract in order to obtain a work permit, a residence permit and social security. Julian Assange should therefore have benefited from all this if his stay was “legal”. If this is true, then there is no need to embark on complicated asylum application procedures, a simple renewal of the residence permit is enough!

Far from Paris, the reality of the London court shows me a man who discovers his file on the eve of his trial. And again, I don’t have the impression that he is reading, but rather that he is looking at it distractedly, as if he were indifferent to all this hullabaloo around him. I watch closely to note when he turns the pages and try to determine whether he is reading or whether he may be forced to participate in a staged event designed to make us believe that he finally has access to his documents. In 45 minutes, Julian Assange turns 4 pages and lifts his head 3 or 4 times to look at the courtyard before returning to the binder. When he lowers his head towards the filing cabinet, he puts his glasses back on, to see the room, he takes them off. These will be all his gestures. Only once, when the prosecutor speaks loudly, Julian Assange rubs his fingers and hands together in a nervous gesture. The rest of the time, he remains motionless, as if absent. And that doesn’t shock anyone in the audience.

Judge Baraitser enters at 3:25 p.m., we get up but Julian Assange remains seated behind the camera. She immediately asks him to confirm “your full name”. He answers her in a clear and more assertive voice than the last times: “my name is Julian Assange 3 July 1971”. But maybe it’s also because they have turned up the sound… That’s all he will say. Once again the hearing takes place without his participation. The hearing will consist of a dialogue between the young prosecutor, lawyer Fitzgerald and Judge Baraitser. The topic is the organization of next week’s trial. It is therefore a “case management hearing” which we are attending. As on previous occasions, I can’t understand everything, so I am attentive to certain expressions that come up in conversation and that I could complete with my post-hearing debriefing with friends and acquaintances.

Lawyer Fitzgerald begins by thanking the judge for responding to one of his e-mails. The email refers to a “preliminary decision” that will not be made next week. Then the judge talks to the prosecutor about the filing of “evidence”. Julian Assange is still reading the first page of the file, he puts his glasses back on, he is now leaning to the right. I don’t feel like he’s listening or hearing the court. I wonder then, a little desperate, what evidence does the prosecution have at its disposal? After all, there is no crime. Moreover, after watching the long version of “Collateral Murder” I don’t feel like I’m looking at a leaked video since many technicians worked on its design. Julian Assange is credited as “producer, creative director”. If there’s a creative director, it’s because there’s creation. The film’s credits also include a host of technicians from RUV, Iceland’s public television. Gudmundur Ragnar Gudmundsson, chief operator of this television station is responsible for the online content, Borgnyr Thoroddsen is sound technician, Kristinn Hrafnsson is story developer and Ingi Ragnar Ingason is visual editor. Icelandic Member of Parliament Birgita Jondsottir is the scriptwriter for the film, while her fellow Pirate Party founder Samari Mac Carthy is co-producer of the film with former hacker and head of the Chaos Computer Club, Rop Ronggrijp. When historians of the future look at this document, they will certainly not be able to consider it as a primary source of knowledge about the US war on Iraqi soil in the years 2003 to 2010. Rather, they will treat it as a fictional image, a particular vision produced by Westerners who are opposed to this war.

However, if today this film is the “crime” that is being judged today, then these Icelandic technicians should be considered at least as responsible as Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning. Besides, I think that nobody has seen the original film transmitted by Manning. I also think that we have not seen any evidence, other than her confessions extracted under torture, that she transmitted anything to Julian Assange, neither the Afghan Logs nor the Iraq Files, which may, however, be the subject of the accusation. In a modern legal system, confessions, unlike justice in the Middle Ages, carry less weight than material evidence, and confessions under torture are only evidence of torture. Moreover, since 8 months of trial we have not yet been able to attend the reading of the indictment. Will it finally take place on Monday 24 February?

I think I hear Vanessa Baraitser say that she “wouldn’t make a decision next week”. This allows Edward Fitzgerald to say, at 3:30 p.m., how much he “respects her proposal” and that he agrees to study the “abuses” in the first few days. The “abuses” would be procedural flaws, including the fact that the 2003 extradition treaty prohibits extradition on political grounds. I am very pleased that the defence is finally getting to the heart of the matter. However, I am concerned by the fact that Julian Assange seems even more passive and absent, he is now reading the second page of the file. I also notice that Mitye’s manager is still in the room. Fitzgerald explains at length that he will file a chronological document tracing the “abuses”, the judge urges him to conclude by next week. At 3:34 p.m., Julian Assange raises his glasses and looks at the court, then he lowers his head towards his file. Baraitser is conciliatory with the lawyer’s speech. She assures “to hear his critical remarks”. Thereafter, however, something embarrassed Fitzgerald and he spoke in a hesitant and inaudible voice. When the judge asks him if he is the “spanish witnesses”, the witnesses in the Spanish proceedings, Assange takes off his glasses and listens. It is 3:37 p.m. The prosecutor then launches an offensive and demands by Monday “the complete documents including the arguments on procedural flaws”. It is then that Julian Assange rubs his hands in a nervous gesture. Baraitser urges the lawyer to file a summary of his defense case next week. Fitzgerald stammers more and more, ends up saying that he will “discuss with his client” and then bring “a chronological summary in relation to the procedural flaws”. At 3.43 p.m., the question of witnesses is reviewed. Fitzgerald spoke at length about the difficulty of obtaining testimony, and dwelt on the case of Chelsea Manning whose testimony before the military commission is classified. At this point, Julian Assange listens, leaning to the left. I understand that the witnesses will not actually take the stand but will send documents. However, while bringing witnesses is complicated, it is often necessary and it is sometimes easier for a person to speak than to write.

The prosecutor and the lawyer then consult a document together. The prosecuting attorney moves around and whispers something in the ear of the prosecutor. Baraitser admits that there is “a lot of bundles” in the file. I understand this word as “many ramifications” or “bundles”. We don’t know if Julian Assange understands what’s going on. He’s becoming more and more invisible as we talk about him. The judge invites the parties to “conclude”. That’s when Fitzgerald mentions three more witnesses. To everyone’s surprise, he cites Jennifer Robinson as a witness, as well as a certain Durkin and Rohrabacher, the politician close to Trump, who will be widely publicized the next day. For my part, I wondered how Jennifer Robinson could appear at the Paris press conference as Julian Assange’s lawyer while being a witness. The question was resolved by her absence at this event. Because what legitimacy can the testimony of a lawyer who is supposed to be in charge of the case have? Normally, no lawyer, with regard to the rule of confidentiality, testifies in a case for which he is in charge. One more procedural flaw? The hearing is concluded with a discussion between judge, lawyer and prosecutor about the deadlines for filing documents.

At 3:55 pm, Vanessa Baraitser finally turns to Julian Assange and tells him that he will physically appear in court on Monday. She concludes her speech with a “do you hear”. Assange looks at her without answering, obviously he hasn’t heard or understood. Then, to everyone’s surprise, the prison guard’s arm appears on the screen. He waves his hand in front of Julian Assange as if he wants to wake him up or check if he can see in front of him. It is only at this moment that I notice the presence of the guard, very present in front of Julian Assange in the box while he is hidden from our eyes. I do not imagine that a trial in which the accused is locked in a box and subjected to the constant gaze of a guard can be considered fair without the court being able to control that the guard does not intimidate the accused and that the accused retains his freedom of conscience if he is not free to move. I realize that Julian Assange was probably simply scared, hence his absent and self-effacing look. The 2017 inspection report of Belmarsh Prison may well show modernized prisoner-guard relations, but the detention system remains a system of domination and a guard has such power over the detainee that it is impossible to speak of freedom of expression when the accused must face the judge while at the same time confronting his guard!

The guard, however, questions the judge. He reminds her that Julian Assange’s arrest expires today and that if nothing is said, he will be forced to release him! For 30 seconds, because of Madame Baraitser’s distraction, Julian Assange could have seen the door of his glove open: you can leave, you are free! Vanessa Baraitser is visibly offended by his oblivion: she declares in a loud voice to adjourn the trial to Monday “and you, Mr. Assange, remain in detention”. Julian Assange does not react. She also forgets to ask him if he understood. The screen is already off, the judge is leaving and we are being told to get out of here.

Still stunned by the injustice and the many procedural flaws, I come to my senses by talking to the activists. We make the film of the hearing again to make sure we understand what’s going on. The lawyers lock themselves in a consultation room, leaving MC McGrath outside. While John goes to talk to him, I talk to the others. Then when the young man pretends to leave, I come and talk to him. He nods affirmatively when I ask him if he is MC McGrath hacker and developer of counter surveillance software. I compliment him on his work and tell him that he is right to go to law school now. In a few years, he may find himself in Julian Assange’s shoes, given how the system is closing in on us to control us. And he’s going to need to know the law to defend himself. I am thinking of Karl Koch, a young hacker prodigy of the 80s, who died in 1988, at the age of 23, in very troubled circumstances after having been used by the media in a massive storytelling about “the pro-Russian hacker spy” and then pressed by the German secret service. Assange had known Karl Koch and probably participated with him in the hacking of the Vax 25, ARPANET and MILNET systems, the first Internet networks. His book written with Suelette Dreyfus, in 1992-1997, describes in a fictionalized way the scandal of 16-year-olds who became the first international hackers. But a review of the German press at the time confirms that these children, all linked to the Chaos Computer Club created recently by Wau Holland and Andy Müller Maguhn in 1981, were under constant surveillance by the BND secret services, who intended to use them against the Soviets. Andy Müller Maguhn was also 16 years old in 1981 but very quickly became the head of the CCC structures and later of the Wau Holland Stiftung in which he developed the 04 Wikileaks project from 2009. The “Wikileaks” project, of which Julian Assange was the executing project coordinator, was as harmful to him as hacking under the control of the secret services was to Karl Koch. The leaders of the Chaos Computer Club, however, were never worried about their legal liability: Bernd Fix developed a virus called Fix virus by the BND in 1985, which served as the first trojan horse against Soviet computers. Today he is a highly respected leader of the Wau Holland Foundation, along with his colleague Müller Maghun, who is the referent of the Board of Directors of the same foundation for the Wikileaks project in 2009-2014 . It is time that 16-year-olds and even unconscious young adults were protected from manipulators who mediate their exploits and then abandon them to their fate when the repression of the system falls upon them.

This is what I try to explain, perhaps awkwardly, to MC McGrath who listens to my sermon before running away. But I’m 48 years old, the age of Julian Assange. It is normal that I warn activists younger than me. I know so well that the capitalist and police system does not give gifts to the real Spartacus.

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