Nearly 13 years after WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange released the video Collateral Murder exposing the brutal and intentional killing of Iraqi civilians and two Reuters journalists, over 150 people packed the same room in the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. for the Belmarsh Tribunal. January 20th’s sitting was the third of the Tribunal, following events in London and New York City in 2021 and 2022 respectively. Many thousands also watched the event live online.
Organized by Progressive International and co-chaired by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! and Croatian philosopher and author Srećko Horvat, the Belmarsh Tribunal brought together a panel of whistleblowers, activists, lawyers and more in support of Assange, WikiLeaks and journalistic freedom.
Held just two blocks from the White House, the Tribunal called on President Biden to end the prosecution of Julian Assange and to defend the rights of journalists and whistleblowers.
Belmarsh, the prison near London where Assange has been held since 2019 is a high-security facility often referred to as the “British version of Guantanamo Bay.” Beginning with the so-called “war on terrorism” in 2001, Belmarsh has been used to house suspected terrorists. Today, many of its prisoners are people who have committed brutally violent crimes like murder and rape.
Assange is being held there pending the completion of his extradition trial, in which the United States government under the Trump and Biden administrations seeks to bring him to trial in the U.S. He could face up to 175 years in prison under the Espionage Act for publishing proof of U.S. war crimes. It would be a death sentence for the 51-year-old whose physical and mental health has already deteriorated during his confinement.
Solidarity was a key theme of the event. Human rights lawyer Steven Donziger opened his remarks by saying “Half the battle is this” as he motioned around the crowded room. “It’s the solidarity,” he continued, expressing his appreciation for those who came out to defend him in his struggle. “I cannot tell you how completely uplifting that was. Part of the challenge when truthtellers speak truth to these entrenched pools of power is how to turn the attacks into opportunities.”
Donziger brought and won a lawsuit against oil company Chevron/Texaco on behalf of indigenous people in Ecuador for destruction of their lands through oil extraction in the Lago Agrio oil field. Chevron retaliated after a $9.5 billion award was levied against them, filing an outrageous RICO suit against Donziger, who was placed under house arrest for a total of 993 days (in addition to 45 days in prison) until he was finally freed in April of 2022.
Solidarity was also extended to Daniel Hale, a whistleblower who exposed the deadly U.S. targeted killing and drone program. Attorney Jesselyn Radack spoke on his case and its connection to Assange’s. Hale is being held in a Communications Management Unit (CMU) at the U.S. Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, A.K.A. “Gitmo North,” where his connection to the outside world is monitored and severely limited.
“I have been shut out of my own clients’ unclassified hearings. The parts of the hearings that are public often include code words and substitutions that make the proceedings very difficult for the public to understand. In one case, the government attempted to prevent defense attorneys from using the word whistleblower, or the word newspaper.” Radack’s account suggests that should Assange be extradited to the United States, he will not be able to receive a fair and impartial trial.
The prosecution of Assange is an example of naked political aggression and intimidation. It’s not only aimed at Assange himself and WikiLeaks, but puts whistleblowers, journalists and activists squarely within the crosshairs.
Former UK Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said, “What’s Julian charged with? Telling the truth. Telling the truth all over the world about what governments do and what governments want to hide…I, as an elected politician, am very well aware that elected politicians don’t like being questioned on the decisions that they make. But it’s fundamental to a democratic society that they are constantly under surveillance and under question. [While] they are very keen on putting everybody else under surveillance, their decisions should be under surveillance at the same time.”
In addition to calling for the Biden administration to end his prosecution, Corbyn also called on journalists and media outlets to continue to stand up. In November 2022, an open letter from The New York Times, El Pais, Le Monde, The Guardian and Der Spiegel published an open letter with the same demand: “This indictment sets a dangerous precedent, and threatens to undermine America’s First Amendment and the freedom of the press. Holding governments accountable is part of the core mission of a free press in a democracy.”
Corbyn went further and called on journalists around the world to stand up for Assange: “I say this to journalists who may be watching this around the world: You might say ‘well ok that’s Assange, that’s different…’ sorry it’s not! It’s you as a journalist because if Julian Assange ends up in a maximum security prison in the United States for the rest of his life, every other journalist around the world will think ‘oh, should I really report this information I’ve been given? Should I really speak out about this denial of human rights, miscarriage of justice in any country around the world? Because the long arm of United States espionage might reach me and an extradition treaty might put me in that same prison.’”
Kristinn Hrafnsson, the current WikiLeaks Editor-In-Chief, appeared by video at the suggestion of his lawyers, as travel to the United States could be dangerous for him.
Hrafnsson broke down the story of WikiLeaks into two chapters: “One is about the publications, the most important journalistic work of this century. The other chapter is about the reaction to this work, and it is equally revealing.”
On one side of that reaction are the attacks on WikiLeaks and journalism, as well as the weakening of basic democratic norms, principles and domestic and international processes. On another is the attention and support that WikiLeaks, Assange and whistleblowing have received. Hrafnsson discussed his recent trip around Latin America, meeting with leaders to discuss the case.
“Argentinians, as do others in the region, know fully well the capability of the CIA in planning kidnapping or killing of individuals.” he said of his meeting with Alberto Fernández and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina. Bolivian President Luis Arce “fully committed himself in support of Assange.” The newly-elected President of Brazil, Lula, said “the fight to end the injustice entailed in the Assange case would be a priority in his foreign policy.” Gusavo Petro of Colombia also provided words of support, as did Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico.
Italian journalist Stefania Maurizi described how she had been “stunned” by the state criminality documented in the files, by the impunity that war criminals and torturers enjoy in our democracies.” She continues to file Freedom of Information requests that she describes as “trench warfare” in the U.S., UK, Sweden and Australia to continue unearthing the truth of the prosecution of Assange. Her latest book, Secret Power: WikiLeaks and its Enemies, has recently been translated to English.
In closing, Horvat provided a review of the panel, the evidence and next steps. “It’s up to the Biden administration to drop the charges. But it’s also up to all of you here in the room and outside of the room to take this further and to make pressure as much as possible towards the Biden administration.”
The next Belmarsh Tribunal will be held in Sydney, Australia in March. He finished with a quote from Assange himself: “If we can only live once, then let it be a daring adventure that draws on all our powers. Let it be with similar types whose hearts and heads we may be proud of. Let our grandchildren delight to find the start of our stories in their ears but the endings all around in their wandering eyes.”