Back to article index


The persecution and torture of Julian Assange can only be understood in its details as caused by the coming together of two distinct political projects. On the one hand there was the desire of the Swedish Social Democratic Party - and in particular a Christian subset within it, the broderskapsrorelsen, "the Brotherhood movement" - to establish that the offence of which Assange was accused was very serious and required to be punished. On the other hand there was the desire of the US government and its allies to incapacitate a man who had found a means by which the conduct of war could become a matter of accurately informed public debate. Although the two projects can be separated out conceptually they nonetheless together formed a marvellous symbiosis and it is difficult to separate them out in practice. 

Nils Melzer's book is concentrated almost wholly on the US project despite the fact that, as I hope to show later, he himself fell victim for a while to the Swedish project. Melzer is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture. That means his job is to investigate accusations of torture coming from all over the world. It is an unpaid job - he earns his living as an academic. He has an office in Geneva and two assistants. It is obvious that with such limited means - hardly likely to strike fear in the hearts of wrongdoers - he has to choose his priorities carefully. He was first contacted by Assange's lawyers in December 2018. He admits (p.10) that his first reaction was negative: 'Julian Assange? Was this not the founder of Wikileaks, the shady hacker with the white hair and leather jacket who was hiding out in an embassy somewhere because of rape allegations ... No, I certainly would not be manipulated by this guy.' Even when his fellow rapporteurs on the situation of human rights defenders and on the UN Working Group on Arbitrary detention put out a press statement calling on the UK to let Assange leave the Ecuadorian embassy freely, he refused to be associated with them.

It was in March 2019, and specifically because of a report on Assange's state of health by Dr Sondra [sic - PB] Crosby, that he began to change his mind (p.33): 'Crosby was not just anyone. A medical doctor and professor of medicine at Boston University, she was specialised in the examination of refugees and victims of torture and had been one of the first physicians to independently examine detainees in Guantanamo. She had an excellent reputation and her voice carried weight. Most important to me she was not associated with the Assange activist camp and was therefore unlikely to take a one-sided position.'

The conditions under which Assange was living in the Ecuadorian Embassy had begun to deteriorate radically with a change of government in Ecuador which took place in March 2017. The left-wing President, Rafael Correa, who had given Assange refuge in 2012, was replaced by his Vice-President, Lenin Moreno. As implied in Moreno's first name, this ought to have been a continuity government, but of course, as members of the British Labour Party have been discovering lately, first names are not to be trusted.

Melzer's account of what followed is a little odd. He says that Moreno was willing to offer Assange's rendition to the US in exchange for financial concessions, including debt relief, as early as May 2017. But in fact Moreno's first initiatives seem to have been favourable to Assange. In December 2017 he granted Assange Ecuadorian citizenship which meant that he could then appoint him as Ecuadorian Ambassador to Moscow. On the face of it rather a brilliant solution to the problem. Had Britain been a country that had any respect for international law that would have given him diplomatic immunity and enabled him to leave the embassy. But Britain had been maintaining a police siege of the embassy (at a total cost to the London ratepayer of some £16 million) since 2012 to prevent Assange from leaving, and Britain is a country that has little or no respect for international law, at least when it comes to being inconvenienced by an insignificant little country such as Ecuador.

Following this, Moreno set about getting Assange out of the embassy by other means, basically by making the conditions of his life as uncomfortable as possible. Of course they were hardly comfortable prior to that. For five years he had been unable to leave the building. He had a small room and a bathroom to himself. But he had, for the most part, good relations with the embassy staff and, most importantly, he had access to the internet, enabling him to continue his work for Wikileaks.

In March 2018, however, Assange's internet and telephone access were blocked and his right to receive visitors, other than from lawyers and doctors, severely restricted. Meetings could only take place in a conference room monitored through surveillance cameras and hidden microphones. Embassy staff deemed to be sympathetic to him were replaced. The consul-general himself, Fidel Narvaez, was removed in the Summer, about the same time that Moreno in Ecuador received a visit from the US Vice-President, Mike Pence. Internet access was restored in October 2018 but in the context of a Special Protocol of visits, communications and medical attention for Mr Julian Paul Assange. 'According to Narvaez,' Melzer tells us (p.201), 'the purpose of the protocol is to "lay out banana peels all over the floor," making sure that Assange will repeatedly slip and thus supply excuses for his expulsion by the Ecuadorian government.' 

The process of rendering life intolerable in the embassy was cheered on by the British government, and specifically by Sir Alan Duncan, Minister for Europe and the Americas. In March 2018, as the process began, Melzer (p.207) quotes Duncan telling the House of Commons: 'It's about time that this miserable little worm walked out of the embassy and gave himself up to British justice' and in January 2019 he recorded in his diary (Melzer, p.199): 'Meet the new Ecuador Ambassador, Jaime Marchan-Romero. His principal mission is to get Assange out of the embassy - it has been six years - and although he had been aiming for tomorrow, as I'd just learnt, it's going to be longer. A tad frustrating, but we'll get there.' Duncan, incidentally, was one of the politicians targeted by the Israeli Embassy for their supposed Palestinian sympathies, as revealed in January 2017 in the Al Jazeera series, The Lobby. In 2014, he had declared that anyone who refused to recognise that West Bank settlements were illegal should be judged unfit for office and had made reference to a 'very powerful financial lobby' which dominates US politics. The Board of Deputies of British Jews had complained, but this of course was before they had the weapon of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism.

Assange was still in the embassy in March 2019, when Melzer began to feel there was a case that needed his attention. He wrote an op-ed on the subject, submitting it to 'The Guardian, The Times, the Financial Times, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian, the Canberra Times, the Telegraph, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Thomson Reuters Foundation, and Newsweek. None responded positively.' (7) He secured permission to visit Assange on 25th April. He also wanted to discuss with the British authorities the possibility that Assange would be arrested and extradited to the United States. The British ambassador to the UN in Geneva refused his request on 10th April, saying (p.39): 'You will appreciate that it would not be appropriate for officials to speculate on hypothetical scenarios.' The hypothetical scenario began to play out the very next day, 11th April. Assange was - in a day, by presidential order - stripped of his Ecuadorian citizenship, dragged out of the embassy without any prior notice, pushed into a police car, brought before Westminster Magistrates Court and sent to Belmarsh prison after a fifteen minute hearing to await sentencing. The judge, Michael Snow, informed him that he was 'a narcissist who cannot get beyond his own selfish interests.' (p.47)

(7) He issued it after Assange's expulsion from the embassy 'on the occasion of the International Day in Support of Torture Victims, 26 June 2019.' Nils Melzer: Demasking the torture of Julian Assange,