It turns out it’s surprisingly easy to tolerate the torture of your citizens if you’re a country with a long record of it. Dr Lissa Johnson weighs in on the Australian Government’s silence on Julian Assange.
As an Australian citizen, Julian Assange has set a number of firsts for Australia.
He was the first person to establish an encrypted dropbox media platform through which whistleblowers could anonymously share troves of information in the public interest, a practice which has now been adopted by news outlets worldwide.
He may be the world’s first publisher with a track record of 100 per cent accuracy.
He is not the first Australian to win a Walkley Award for Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism of course, but he is the first Walkley winner whose award-winning journalism has attracted a possible 175 years in US prisons.
That remarkable first makes him the first Australian journalist to be prosecuted as a spy by the United States government. In fact, he is the first journalist ever to be prosecuted as a spy by the United States government, under its 1917 Espionage Act.
If Assange’s prosecution is successful, he will go down in history as the Australian whose test case served to redefine journalism as espionage.
Among all these firsts, perhaps the most striking is that Assange is the first citizen of an ostensibly democratic state whom a UN official has found to be the target of a campaign of collective persecution and mobbing by a group of other so-called democratic states.
Upon reporting this finding, the UN Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer, observed that: “In 20 years of work with victims of war, violence and political persecution I have never seen a group of democratic States ganging up to deliberately isolate, demonise and abuse a single individual for such a long time and with so little regard for human dignity and the rule of law.”
As part of the campaign of mobbing and collective persecution documented by the UN Rapporteur, Julian Assange is the first Australian journalist to be publicly tortured for journalism in the UK.
On 9 May 2019, Professor Melzer became part of Australian history when he visited Assange in Belmarsh prison, accompanied by two medical experts specialising in the assessment and documentation of torture.
On 31 May, Melzer reported that he and his medical team had found Assange to be suffering all symptoms typical of prolonged exposure to psychological torture.
On 1 November 2019, Melzer warned that, unless the UK government urgently changed course and alleviated the inhumane conditions of Julian Assange’s situation, it may soon end up costing his life.
If Nils Melzer is right, Assange is on track to become not only the first Australian journalist to be tortured, but tortured to death, on UK soil.
Melzer explained on 9 December 2019 that “maybe he can hold out for another year, maybe even two. But he might also be finished tomorrow”.
For all of these reasons, Julian Assange is the first journalist whose abuse has prompted doctors and psychologists from all over the world to write to the Australian government, begging it to intervene to stop the torture of its citizen, and stand up for his rights, before it is too late.
Doctors for Assange
On 22 November 2019, an international group of doctors and psychologists*, then numbering 65 and now over 200, wrote to the UK government following Professor Melzer’s warnings.
In an open letter to the UK Home Secretary the doctors said, “We have real concerns, on the evidence currently available, that Mr Assange could die in prison”. In their letter, the doctors underlined the seriousness of the prolonged psychological torture identified by the UN Rapporteur.
They explained that Assange also suffered from a long history of untreated medical conditions, and obstruction of adequate health care, in the Ecuadorian Embassy. The doctors stressed that, as a victim of torture in a fragile state of health, prison is a medically dangerous environment for Julian Assange.
After receiving no response from two open letters to the UK government, on 16 December 2019 the doctors wrote to the Australian government with an urgent appeal: “We call upon you to intervene as a matter of urgency…. You have an undeniable legal obligation to protect your citizen against the abuse of his fundamental human rights, stemming from US efforts to extradite Mr Assange for journalism and publishing that exposed US war crimes…. That we, as doctors, feel ethically compelled to hold governments to account on medical grounds speaks volumes about the gravity of the medical, ethical and human rights travesties that are taking place.”
It is an extremely serious matter for an Australian citizen’s survival to be endangered by a foreign government obstructing his human right to health. It is an even more serious matter for that citizen’s own government to refuse to intervene, against historical precedent and numerous converging lines of medical advice.
The doctors awaited a reply, but none came.
With concern over Julian Assange’s life and health mounting, in February 2020 the doctors’ warnings were published in the medical journal The Lancet, under the title ‘End Torture and Medical Neglect of Julian Assange’. The doctors stressed, “Should Assange die in a UK prison… he will effectively have been tortured to death. Much of that torture will have taken place in a prison medical ward, on doctors’ watch…. We are calling upon governments to end the torture of [Julian] Assange.”
The doctors’ unprecedented letters, in this unprecedented case, join an international consensus among the world’s leading authorities in human rights, press freedom and international law.
From Reporters Without Borders to the Council of Europe to Human Rights Watch, those authorities are denouncing not only Assange’s imprisonment, but the Espionage Act charges and US extradition proceedings against him. Amnesty International, for instance, has written, “The US government’s unrelenting pursuit of Julian Assange for having published disclosed documents that included possible war crimes committed by the US military is nothing short of a full-scale assault on the right to freedom of expression”.
In case the UK government hadn’t noticed the international chorus denouncing its persecution of Assange, in a letter to the UK Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice in June 2020 the doctors wrote: “The convergence of warnings from as broad a base of civil society as this underlines the fact that Mr Assange’s life and health are inseparable from the life and health of our democracies. The fundamental rights upon which those democracies are founded risk ending up on life support along with Mr Assange if his torture and medical neglect are not brought to an end, immediately.”
Torture? What Torture?
Julian Assange is being held in what is known as ‘Britain’s Guantanamo’, Belmarsh prison, a high-security facility designed for those charged with terrorism, murder and other violent offences. He is being detained without any custodial sentence or UK charge in place.
Moreover, he is being arbitrarily detained according to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. In other words, he is being held without sufficient basis in due process or law. As Independent Australian MP Andrew Wilkie has observed, “The fact that Julian Assange is in prison in the first place is complete nonsense”.
Although an un-sentenced, un-convicted, non-violent, arbitrarily detained person who is innocent in the eyes of the law, Assange has been held in solitary confinement for 22 to 23 hours a day. While isolated, he is deprived of activities to distract him from the torments that await him if extradited to the United States.
He knows that US-aligned security contractors have written in emails that he will make a nice bride in prison, and needs his head dunked in a full toilet bowl at Gitmo. He knows that he is headed for life in US supermax prisons, where prisoners are held in perpetual solitary and chains, and whose conditions have been condemned by previous UN Rapporteurs on Torture and the UN Committee Against Torture.
Assange is aware that as long ago as 2010, the CIA refused to confirm or deny whether it was planning to assassinate him. At his recent extradition hearing, the court heard that the US government had considered a plan to kidnap or poison him while he was in the Ecuadorian Embassy. He understands very well the designs that the US state has had on him for many years, and the dangers, torments and abuses he would face in the US.
Professor Melzer has cautioned, “If this man gets extradited to the United States, he will be tortured until the day he dies”.
To heighten the terror and torment of this reality, Julian Assange has been prevented from preparing his defence against US extradition, in violation of his human rights as a defendant. He has been granted negligible access to lawyers in Belmarsh prison, and negligible opportunity to read, let alone address, the documents in the case against him. He has no computer with internet access, and is prevented from researching his own defence.
The only purpose that this serves is to render him helpless, making him easy prey, intensifying his trauma by stoking his hopelessness, his powerlessness against danger, and the omnipotence of the threat.
It is no surprise in this context that Assange’s psychiatrist told the court during the first phase of his extradition hearing, “I am as confident as a psychiatrist can ever be that, if extradition to the United States were to become imminent, Mr Assange would find a way of suiciding”.
At the time of writing, in addition to being rendered helpless against US extradition threats, Assange is not only continuing to be denied adequate medical care, including rehabilitation from torture, he has been denied emergency bail in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, despite meeting internationally agreed criteria for release. Assange is vulnerable to the lethal effects of COVID-19 given his years of medical neglect, the immunosuppressive effects of chronic psychological torture, and persistent respiratory issues.
Even before the coronavirus outbreak, continuing to hold him under psychologically torturous conditions in Belmarsh prison was tantamount to playing Russian roulette with his life. Coronavirus has added another bullet in that chamber, intensifying his torture and his medical neglect.
For 23 hours a day, day in and day out, there is no human contact or human comfort to ease the trauma, the threat, the fear and the helplessness of his situation. No companionship; no-one to share the burden or the strain. No mutual laughter for relief.
No shared moments. Cut off from his children, his fiancée, his family, friends and colleagues. Nothing but a barren cell and a carefully imposed savagery of absence.
Little wonder that he called his friend Vaughan Smith on Christmas Eve 2019 to say, “I’m slowly dying in here”.
A Message from the Australian Government
Julian Assange is slowly dying as part of a gruesome legal experiment in criminalising journalism. His prosecution is a Frankenstein’s monster of dismembered and reassembled sections of different treaties and Acts, with key legal protections excised, in a lurching global quest for unbridled power.
Whether he is extradited or not, his long slow death in UK custody sets an example to anyone watching and thinking of airing the dirty secrets of those in power: the genuinely dirty secrets, such as wantonly slaughtering and torturing innocent people and covering it up. Like all public torture, it sends a message to onlookers: this could happen to you.
And the message from the Australian government to any Australian journalists looking on? You’re on your own. Journalists are increasingly at risk of persecution worldwide.
In 2019 Reporters Without Borders wrote that “hatred of journalists has degenerated into violence, contributing to an increase in fear. The number of countries regarded as safe, where journalists can work in complete security, continues to decline.”
One year later, journalists lawfully covering protests in the United States in 2020 are being arrested, shot with rubber bullets, asphyxiated with tear gas and punched – hard – on camera, unprovoked and unpunished.
This highly visible decline in the number of countries that are safe for journalists is accelerating at speed with the persecution of Julian Assange. His pursuit across national boundaries sets a precedent leaving nowhere in the world for journalists to hide.
He is being prosecuted without heed of sovereign borders or jurisdictions, for journalistic activity that was legal where and when it occurred.
In order to criminalise the journalistic activity that won him Australia’s highest journalistic honour, the US government is seeking to retrospectively apply its own Espionage Act to non-US citizens in foreign lands, while simultaneously withholding the free speech protections of its Constitution.
The upshot would be that non-US citizens, and non-US journalists, would be vulnerable to prosecution wherever they may be, whenever the United States saw fit. Should a host country oblige, that journalist’s only hope would be the protection of their own government.
And the message from the Australian government? Not a chance.
But what could the Australian government reasonably do to help a tortured Australian journalist in a foreign land even if it wanted to? Were the doctors justified in writing to the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, “you have an undeniable legal obligation to protect your citizen against the abuse of his fundamental human rights”? Can the Australian government do anything to stop the torture of Assange in the UK? Or are its hands tied?
A Climate of Consent
Australia ratified the Convention Against Torture in 1989. As a party to the treaty it has what is known as a positive duty to take “effective legislative, administrative, judicial and other measures to prevent acts of torture” of its citizens.
According to the Australian Federal Attorney-General’s website, however, that duty applies to “territories within Australia’s jurisdiction”. So who is responsible for protecting Australian citizens from torture overseas? The Australian Human Rights Commission website explains that “the federal government has the overall legal responsibility for making sure that your human rights are protected” as an Australian citizen. But how is that achieved in practice, when those rights are violated elsewhere?
During Senate Estimates hearings in March 2020, while questioning officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) regarding the treatment of Julian Assange, Australian Senator Peter Whish-Wilson reminded DFAT representatives that Australian officials can raise concerns with their overseas counterparts when they are concerned about gross violations of Australian citizens’ rights.
With respect to Nils Melzer’s findings the Senator added, “Given the extraordinary nature of his very public claims… you must be concerned”.
Historical precedent indicates that, if the Australian government is indeed concerned, representatives can and do raise matters with their overseas counterparts, as they did in the cases of Melinda Taylor, James Ricketson, David Hicks and Peter Greste.
In addition to raising concerns with overseas counterparts, under Article 21 of the Convention Against Torture (CAT), “a State Party [may claim]that another State Party is not fulfilling its obligations under this Convention” through a submission to the Committee Against Torture. Moreover, under CAT Article 5, “Each State Party shall take such measures as may be necessary to establish its jurisdiction over the offences… when the victim is a national of that state”.
In other words, the Australian government has options.
In Julian Assange’s case, however, rather than establish its jurisdiction over the offences, raise concerns with their overseas counterparts, and/or alert the Committee Against Torture, the Australian government has opted for what is termed “consent and acquiescence” under CAT Article 1.
Consent and acquiescence is listed alongside inflicting and instigating torture as part of the very definition of torture, in the first sentence of the first Article of the Convention, placing it at the heart of prohibited activity.
Nevertheless, so consenting and acquiescent to Assange’s torture has the Australian government been that the UN Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer has called Australia the “glaring absentee” in Julian Assange’s case.
Consent and acquiescence are the antithesis of the government’s positive duty to prevent torture under the CAT. A positive duty involves an obligation to act.
“Positive obligations are, broadly speaking, obligations ‘to do something’ to ensure respect and protection of human rights,” explains the UN Office of Drugs and Crime. All of which places the Australian government’s determination to do nothing under the complicity spotlight.
You Call It Reminiscent of Abu Ghraib. We Call It ‘Standard’ Fare
Following the first phase of Assange’s extradition hearing in February 2020, the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) issued a statement joining “the widespread concern over the ill-treatment of Mr Assange”, describing it as “shocking and excessive”.
The Institute added that his treatment was “reminiscent of the Abu Ghraib Prison Scandal”.
On the issue of the Australian government’s inaction over that treatment, during Senate Estimates in March 2020 Senator Peter Whish-Wilson summarised Assange’s ill-treatment thus: “politically motivated prosecutors, denial of justice, manipulated evidence, biased judges, unlawful surveillance, denial of defence rights and abusive prison conditions”.
In response, DFAT representatives assured the Senator that Assange’s treatment in the UK was perfectly normal. ‘Standard’ was the term repeatedly used, as though decided in advance. “The approach taken in relation to Mr Assange is no different” than that towards other UK prisoners, DFAT informed the Senator.
Routine, in other words. Nothing to see here.
When the Senator reminded DFAT officials that Assange had been handcuffed 11 times, stripped naked twice and moved between five different holding cells after the first day of his extradition hearing, a DFAT representative described this as “standard prison to court and court to prison procedure”.
Assange’s treatment was “not different from any other person in his circumstances”, the Senate heard. Except that no other person has ever been in Julian Assange’s circumstances. Not one time. He is the first person in history to have been prosecuted for publishing activity under the US Espionage Act.
What the Australian government officials failed to explain to the Australian Parliament is that Julian Assange’s treatment at the hands of Belmarsh prison authorities and Belmarsh Magistrates Court is only ‘standard’ and normal for prisoners charged with terrorism or other violent offences.
What is not standard or normal at all is for Walkley Award-winning Australian journalists to be prosecuted as spies by the United States, and subjected to maximum security conditions as a result.
It is not standard for someone charged with nothing whatsoever under United Kingdom law to be treated exactly like someone charged with terrorism. It is not standard, or remotely normal, for journalists with no criminal history, no custodial sentence, and no history or risk of violence to be detained under the harshest and most punitive conditions that UK law enforcement has to offer.
Nor is it standard for publishers to be held behind bullet-proof glass while on trial for their journalism, thereby preventing them from sitting with or instructing their lawyers, as if their journalistic skills might break loose and terrorise the court.
DFAT representatives, however, maintained in very measured and ‘standard’ tones that there is no reason to believe “that anything other than due process is being followed in the United Kingdom”.
As an exercise in consent and acquiescence, the DFAT representatives performed their duties well. Sanitising, normalising language, which minimises and trivialises abuse, is a ‘standard’, very normal, supremely routine psychological tool for fostering passive acquiescent consent, the social bedrock of state-sanctioned violence.
The collective psychological systems supporting atrocity such as torture serve primarily to foster such silence and acquiescence, by various psychological means, enabling perpetrators to continue perpetrating unopposed. Systemic abuse such as torture is, after all, a collective, group-based activity.
Overtly abusive actors rely on a supporting cast of characters who together create the atrocity-generating conditions in which torture and ill treatment may thrive. Unless performed in secret, systemic atrocities cannot unfold without consenting observers who decline to hold perpetrators to account.
Philosopher Adam Morton calls them agents of or accomplices in horror.
When promoting a climate of consent to torture, in addition to sanitising abusive acts, it is necessary for those in official capacities to divest themselves of their responsibilities. This is typically achieved by displacing responsibility onto others within the frame.
At times it is done with intent, but often it reflects unconscious, reflexive processes aimed at letting oneself off the moral and psychological hook. Responsibility can be displaced upwards, as in the case of the guard who is ‘only following orders’, or downwards, in the case of the supervisor who outsources the dirty work to the guard.
Alternatively, it can be displaced sideways, for instance when government authorities handball responsibility to their overseas counterparts. ‘Not our responsibility’ has been the Australian government’s refrain with respect to Julian Assange.
Australian government officials “don’t provide running commentaries on legal matters before the courts in other parts of the world”, asserted the Minister for Foreign Affairs during Senate question time.
Australia is “not a party to the legal proceedings in the United Kingdom”, stressed a DFAT official when asked why Australia had not intervened in Assange’s case during Senate Estimates. Assange’s treatment “is a matter for the United Kingdom system”, DFAT representatives maintained. “We have no standing in the legal matter that is currently before the courts”. “At no point in time has the UN Special Rapporteur been in any contact with the Australian government to raise these concerns directly.”
Under the Convention Against Torture, with its positive obligations to ‘do something’, waiting for an invitation to intervene in the torture of a citizen is not what the Convention intended. But perhaps the Australian government doesn’t understand the seriousness of the abuses taking place in the UK. Perhaps ministers and their advisors are unaware of the difference between psychological torture and a ‘legal matter’. Psychological torture is, after all, not commonly well understood.
It is possible that the Australian government merely fails to grasp the gravity of ignoring Professor Melzer’s warnings. To address these possibilities, when they wrote to the Australian government in December 2019, Doctors for Assange detailed the medical and psychological basis of their concerns for Assange’s life and health. In a letter to Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs the doctors wrote:
“While it may be convenient in the short term for governments and their authorities to ignore findings that Julian Assange has been psychologically tortured, ultimately those governments do so at their own risk. Psychological torture can prove fatal… Contrary to popular misconception, the injuries caused by psychological torture are real and extremely serious. Prolonged solitary confinement [for instance]does not simply cause loneliness, boredom and malaise.
It reduces neuronal activity in the brain, leading to severe and long-lasting brain damage, including cortical atrophy and decrease in the size of the hippocampus … and 26% increased risk in premature death … After a period of prolonged solitary confinement, once social contact is restored and treatment implemented, recovery can take years or even decades, after which harm can still persist.”
At the time of the correspondence, Assange had been subject to 22 hours of social isolation a day, for months. As of June 2020 his time in isolation has been increased to 23 hours per day under coronavirus measures.
Given its potential to cause irreversible harm after just two weeks, solitary confinement of more than 14 days has been deemed to constitute torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment by the UN torture mandate since 2011. In addition to its neuro-cognitive effects, solitary confinement can cause extremely severe depression, disorientation and suicidality, all of which have been observed and documented during Assange’s court appearances and extradition proceedings.
The doctors continued: “Far from being purely psychological in nature, psychological torture causes physical harm in addition to its emotional and cognitive impacts. Via immunosuppressive and cardiovascular mechanisms, persistently and chronically activated stress physiology causes susceptibility to a range of potentially catastrophic illnesses and diseases, including, but not limited to, cancer and cardiovascular pathology.”
Two months later the Australian government replied, maintaining that “The Australian Government cannot intervene in the legal process of another country”. The doctors wrote back, emphasising the Australian government’s responsibility to its citizen: “In the case that an Australian citizen’s human rights are being abused, including his human right to health [and]his right to be free from torture… we are reliably advised that, consular assistance aside, government ministers can advocate for due legal process, and raise concerns with their overseas counterparts…. These are surely matters in which government ministers have not only the ability but the obligation to raise concerns about gross violations of rights.”
The Australian government responded once again: “Mr Assange’s extradition proceedings are a matter for the UK and the United States (US) Governments”.
Not our responsibility. Not our concern. You call it human rights abuse, we call it a ‘legal matter’.
We Don’t Torture Here
Another means of promoting a climate of consent is to capitalise upon common psychological blind-spots. By invoking a psychological process known as ‘system justification’, psychological sleights of hand cause systemic abuses such as torture to psychologically disappear.
System justification is a pervasive form of self-deception, akin to self-enhancing biases, whereby the ability to see one’s own society’s flaws is impaired. The system-justifying impulse involves a propensity to view one’s own social and political systems in a favourable light, as being good, right, fair and just. When confronted with evidence to the contrary, such as the torture of a publisher and journalist, many people double-down defensively on the system’s legitimacy, to rationalise, defend and bolster the status quo.
Given that system justification serves to protect against harsh realities, it has been described as a fundamental delusion about the social and political world. Accordingly, invoking system-justifying blind-spots is a powerful psychological tool.
Examples of system-justifying reactions conducive to acquiescence and consent include flatly rejecting evidence of torture and ill-treatment; refusing to respond to specific allegations with specificity; asserting systemic legitimacy in sweeping, blanket terms; or casting an accused authority, process, society or institution as beyond reproach.
For instance: “Australia has a very high level of confidence in the British criminal legal process.” Australia has “faith in the rule of law, due process and the independence of the judiciary in the United Kingdom”. There is “no evidence in relation to the United Kingdom court proceedings” regarding Julian Assange’s treatment “that would found an Australian concern”. “The Australian Government rejects any suggestion by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture that it is complicit in the violation of Mr Assange’s rights.” “Australia expects the legal systems of both the US and the UK to deliver” due process.
The British system is a ‘judicial system’ that Australia has ‘every confidence in’. ‘He will get a fair hearing in court, and justice will ultimately be served.’ ‘Australia is a staunch defender of human rights and a strong advocate for humane treatment.’
We don’t torture here.
Despite, or because of, the failure to specifically address any specific allegations, glorifying the status quo in this way is music to system justifying ears. It is the social-psychological equivalent of closing the torture chamber door, shutting out the screams, and turning the classical music up loud.
Screaming? What screaming? I hear violins.
The New Normal in Australia?
Julian Assange is not the first person in Australia to be subjected to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Nor is he the first person to be left for dead under a climate of consent.
Australia’s abuse of asylum seekers and refugees has been found to violate the Convention Against Torture. Aboriginal Australians have been dying in custody, buried under acquiescent consent, for decades, and historically for hundreds of years. Aboriginal Australians are among the most incarcerated groups on earth. They suffer a racially biased justice system that rivals apartheid South Africa.
The Human Rights Measurement Index 2019 has given Australia a 5.5 out of 10 rating for ‘freedom from torture’, noting, “Torture is a serious problem in Australia… a large range of people [are]at particular risk of torture or ill-treatment, with Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders at the top of the list.”
The societal silence on these issues has been deafening, relieved recently by the public show of support in the Black Lives Matter protests and rallies. In every case, the climate of consent is fashioned from the same social-psychological material, whether the target is a persecuted journalist, group, race or nation. The fact that it is Julian Assange in Belmarsh prison matters not because he is an individual, or an Australian citizen. It matters because he is a journalist. It matters because he is a journalist capable of piercing the climate of acquiescence and consent around other abusive acts, such as the oppression of the vulnerable, the exploitation of the oppressed, the war on terror, and war itself, with its victims in the millions.
Through sending a message to journalists worldwide by torturing Assange, the abusive licence deployed against other persecuted groups is being expanded to take in journalism.
The targeting of journalists around the world matters because journalists – real journalists – are the ones who cut across the acquiescence and consent, remove the deadbolt on the torture chamber door, turn down the music, and expose what is going on inside. Every persecuted and abused group or person needs them, to break the cycle of violence by breaking the silence.
In Assange’s case, his torture and prosecution under the Espionage Act are about making state crime a protected activity and journalism a prohibited one. His torture is about creating a climate of consent through a climate of impunity and fear.
Journalists the world over, and those whose stories they tell, are at risk if his persecution and torture are allowed to stand. His abuse, therefore, is the business of every citizen and every government. Not least the Australian government.
We do torture here. It is our problem. In Julian Assange’s case, the biggest problem appears to be that torturing journalists is becoming the new normal in Australia.
* Dr Lissa Johnson is a signatory to the doctors’ open letters. This is a chapter reprinted from a new book A Secret Australia, details of which are available here.
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