Preventing torture – how threats to press freedom threaten world peace

In 2011, Medact published a report ‘Preventing Torture – The role of physicians and their professional organisations’. This was a result of considerable work undertaken by a small team led by then Medact Director, Marion Birch. We were greatly helped by a consultation with the then UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Dr Juan Mendez, a lawyer of considerable experience, not least having been subjected to torture himself. Our work continued for two more years, though due to a lack of funding had to be discontinued. However, the principle remains close to Medact’s fundamental mission.

Nils Melzer, current UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, this year published The Trial of Julian Assange – a story of persecution (Verso Books). The circumstances behind this publication are truly remarkable and perhaps best summarised by quoting the dust jacket:

In July 2010, WikiLeaks published the Afghan War Diary, one of the biggest leaks in military history, including evidence for war crimes and torture. Shortly afterwards, Sweden issued an arrest warrant for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on probable cause of rape, and a US grand jury secretly started investigating him for espionage. After both Sweden and Britain refused to guarantee that Assange would not be extradited to the US, he sought refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he stayed for the next seven years. When Ecuador finally turned him over to Britain in 2019, the US immediately demanded his extradition and threatened him with 175 years in prison. Nils Melzer, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, initially declined to get involved. Only when he visited Assange in prison (Belmarsh, UK) and researched the facts did he begin to see through the deception and to recognise the case for what it really was: the  story of a political persecution. Melzer’s findings are explosive: Assange has faced grave and systemic due process violations, judicial bias, and manipulated evidence. He has been exposed to constant surveillance, defamation and threats (and) suffered prolonged psychological torture. Melzer’s compelling investigation shows how – through secrecy, impunity and public indifference – unchecked power has spun out of control and risks annihilating Western democracy and the rule of law. The trial of Julian Assange could set a chilling precedent: for when telling the truth has become a crime, we will all be living in a tyranny.

Melzer also points out that the Swedish authorities have withdrawn their warrant against Assange. Of course, cases of sexual assault and rape should be taken seriously, handled with care and consideration for those harmed. However, whether or not a person is accused or implicated in such cases, no one deserves the torture and inhumane treatment to which Assange has unjustly been subject.

WikiLeaks’ work is not illegal – rather it exemplifies high quality investigative journalism which, while protecting its sources, does not shirk from publishing facts which authorities wish to keep secret. A relevant, particularly graphic and explosive exposé is the video-clip in ‘Collateral Murder’ released in April 2010 and which was followed by the U.S.’ action against Assange, using the Swedish case as a means of entrapment. No-one deserves the torture and inhumane treatment meted out to Assange in Belmarsh.

But even more important than the tragedy for Assange himself and his family is the open threat to press freedom – noting that Obama was the US President at the time and that the US Authorities have been aided by the compliant governments of the UK, Sweden, Ecuador, and Australia (Assange is an Australian citizen); for press freedom is one of the precious foundations of our democracy. 

It may be thought that tragic though it is, the Assange case pales into insignificance given the current trials and threats – climate change, ongoing global conflict, nuclear annihilation, etc; but informed responses to these threats also suffer from authoritarian censorship, lack of openness and accountability and the tragic rightwards trend among the world’s nations. 

Despite this, on Saturday October 8th, thousands of people, organised by Canary Workers’ Co-op, converged on the area around Parliament to form a human chain in solidarity with Assange. Support for Assange has now been expressed by the National Union of Journalists, the International Federation of Journalists, Amnesty International, Kevin Courtney (joint general secretary of the National Education Union), MP Jeremy Corbyn and many more. 

Peace advocates can still campaign for Assange, who is now a very sick man. As health professionals we have a duty to advocate care and attention to the health of all persons in custody: making an example of Assange is inhumane and utterly indefensible. Medact members can also write to their MP, and if they get an unsympathetic response (which I did), refer them to Melzer’s book. You may wish to follow The Canary and Stop The War coalition to stay updated on further demonstrations.