Have you ever met a notorious criminal?
Julian Assange case: "The real criminals are still unpunished today"
The Swedish-Swiss UN diplomat Nils Melzer has investigated the case of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Melzer is very sober. The result of his investigations is oppressive. Melzer speaks of the banality of evil, as we can also observe it in the liberal West.
Mr Melzer, you are the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture. How long have you been dealing with human rights and war crimes?
I dealt with international topics while studying law in Switzerland. After my internship in court, I registered with the International Red Cross (ICRC). They sent me to the Kosovo war. I was with the ICRC for twelve years. I've also been to the Middle East. I visited prisoners of war and wrote reports on torture. Finally came September 11th and the drone kills. I wrote my part-time dissertation on this and did legal advice for the ICRC. Then I became professor of international law in Glasgow and Geneva. I was also a security policy advisor to the Swiss government.
Why did you go to the United Nations (UN) as the Special Rapporteur on Torture?
I have seen the darkest sides of humanity in the various war zones. In war people become blind with fear. After September 11th, Americans were collectively traumatized. It was the infamous time black sites originated where Americans tortured and ill-treated. I wanted to do something and not just lead a peaceful life in Switzerland. I have visited prisons all over the world for years. After all, the Swiss government recommended me for the post.
What is a UN Special Rapporteur?
You have the status of a UN expert. He enjoys diplomatic immunity and usually operates at the level of the foreign minister. The biggest advantage: the UN special rapporteur is independent. Nobody can give him instructions. I am only obliged to the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Such independence is seldom found at this level. Even heads of government and ministers are dependent on instructions. The special rapporteur is an unpaid honorary post. I have a small team. But there are no free time and weekends. The rapporteur is appointed for three years. There is an extension to a maximum of six years. I've been doing this for five years.
Their job is to expose torture and ill-treatment by states. Isn't there a lot of pressure from governments?
I have always made sure that I act according to the regulations. And I can say that I was able to really do my job freely. However, you risk your career if you step too far on the feet of the permanent members of the UN Security Council. I have been informed informally that I will have to pay a political price. But I accept that.
You have now taken a very unusual step and written a book about Julian Assange. You are very harshly judged with the brute methods of the USA, Great Britain and Sweden. Must have made loads of enemies?
At a diplomatic dinner, I was told in clauses that it was a mistake to take the case. When I said that Assange was being tortured and asked the states to be held accountable, the western states suddenly ran out of research funding for my mandate. The government of Norway asked me to pay back $ 100,000 on the flimsy grounds that the money was not spent in the budget year. I had to fire my research assistant. But I didn't knock on the Russians or Chinese for money. I wanted to keep my independence at all costs. I didn't mean to sell my soul.
Have you tried intimidation?
The most massive reaction came when I wrote a critical article on the Swedish rape allegations against Assange. 300 feminists have sharply criticized me. This was because the article was shortened and therefore misleading. I corrected that and we resolved the misunderstanding by mutual agreement. I made it clear that I didn't want to undermine the credibility of the women who tried to force Assange to have an HIV test. My criticism is not directed at women who are also victims of arbitrariness by the authorities. My criticism is directed at the Swedish authorities. They instrumentalized the legitimate cause of women to portray Assange as a rapist - but without ever bringing charges against him. I realized which strong emotions are involved. But it was also clear to me: I had to talk about this taboo. This was the only way I was able to ensure that the narrative collapsed like a house of cards in the end. The Swedish authorities have closed all investigations after ten years for lack of evidence.
At first, however, you believed the official narrative ...
One day I got a message from the Assange lawyers. They wrote that Assange was being treated inhumanely and that they were asking me for help.
What was your reaction?
I had a strong emotional rejection. I thought: what, that gunk? I was still missing that. I sure won't do that. I have to reject nine out of ten cases that are brought up to me for reasons of capacity. I need to focus on cases where I can still prevent torture. With Assange I thought: He can't have a legitimate concern. This is a spoiled boy who has molested women and now has a comparatively good life in an embassy. I thought: he's fine, he has a skateboard and a cat. When I finally got involved in the case, I found that none of this narrative was true. It was a narrative that was created so that we could discuss a minor matter: is Assange a good person or a bad person? This discussion serves as a distraction so that the really important topic is not discussed: namely the war crimes, torture and corruption that Assange and Wikileaks exposed. The discoverer was criminalized. The real criminals are still unpunished today.
They then visited Assange in London's maximum security Belmarsh Prison. What was your impression of him?
I have visited thousands of prisoners in the course of my job. He made an educated, intellectual impression on me. He looked very different from the pictures of his arrest, where he was dragged neglected with long hair and beard from the Ecuadorian embassy in London. It later emerged that his shaving kit had been stolen from him at the embassy three months earlier - he was supposed to look just like that, depraved, unpleasant. In Belmarsh his hair was short and he looked clean and well-groomed. However, even then he suffered from severe anxiety and stress. You could see that in all of his behavior. I know this from political prisoners who are intelligent and put in isolation. The prisoners' thoughts begin to revolve around themselves. You get into a state of constant panic. They desperately cling to an illusory trump card that they can draw in the end. They tell themselves that they are still in control of their lives, even though they have long since lost control.
Did Assange appear to you as a political prisoner? Did he really run Wikileaks out of a political mission and not out of greed or on behalf of someone?
As far as I can tell, he is clearly the intellectual owner of Wikileaks. It is his genuine concern to ensure transparency, to fight for human rights. This was also shown by the fact that he immediately wanted to involve me in a fundamental political discussion. I blocked that because I was there to monitor his treatment and the conditions of his detention.
There is speculation that he and Wikileaks could act on behalf of the Russians?
From my point of view, this is nonsense. You can tell from the fact that the Russians do not support him at all. You support Snowden, but not Assange. He's also uncovered Russian secrets. One has to ask: would Russia allow Wikileaks to operate in Russia? Definitely not. Would Wikileaks take information from Russian agents? I think so, but they also took information from US sources. The bottom line about Wikileaks is that the information is encrypted and anonymous.
Is whistleblowing what Wikileaks does?
No, Wikileaks itself is not a whistleblower, but a journalistic platform that publishes information from whistleblowers. Wikileaks has taken over this task from traditional media that have no longer noticed them. Wikileaks and Assange certainly didn't do everything perfectly. But that's not what this is about. It is about war crimes that are not prosecuted and punished. It is one of the western principles that we have the rule of law. There is a systemic failure here in the West. What should be done is to ask: What do you want with the torture cellars? When will the guilty be punished? When is there compensation for the victims? This should be discussed by the public and not whether they find Assange likeable or unsympathetic. It was terrifying for me to see that even western governments only shrug their shoulders when a UN representative they appointed comes along and presents evidence of serious human rights violations. What am I supposed to do with the Russians and the Chinese when I have my back to the wall in the western democracies, which should be my allies? If we want to save something systemically, then we have to start in the West. Because if we punish journalists and whistleblowers and not those who have committed crimes in the name of a state, then we are embarking on a very dangerous spiral of violence: We tolerate excesses of violence by state agencies, always and everywhere. Then there are crimes like the murder of George Floyd and all the other crimes that Black Lives Matter are demonstrating against.
They accuse the Swedish, British and American authorities that Assange was mentally tortured. Torture therefore consists of intimidation, isolation, arbitrariness and humiliation. How do you see these elements in the Assange case?
Basically, intimidation is the main purpose of all torture. You don't want to fathom the truth. You want to break the will - the will of the victim as well as the will of the audience. One wants to control the will. This can happen through physical pain and psychological destabilization. When there is no physical violence, it is called "white torture". But basically every torture has a psychological aspect because it is about the will. Mental torture works in a similar way to bullying: the group isolates, threatens and humiliates an individual. That creates fear and destabilization. Bullying in normal life also often leads to the limits of suicide. The essence of arbitrariness is that the person concerned no longer knows what applies. In Assange's case, the state is arbitrary. If Assange wanted to exercise his rights, he was simply ignored. The humiliations are obvious in the case of Assange: He is defamed and ridiculed, is brought into the courtroom in a glass case, and is not even allowed to shake hands with his lawyers through a slit. He has to undergo multiple body searches before the trials. When he once shouted “Nonsense!” From his cage during a trial, the judge hissed at him that he had to remain silent. And of course there is the very specific threat that he should be extradited to the inhumane detention system of the USA.
Aren't the conditions in Belmarsh bad enough as you describe them in your book?
The key difference to the USA is that imprisonment in Great Britain cannot last forever. There are limits to extradition proceedings. For Assange this means: He sees light at the end of the tunnel. My experience with political prisoners is that they can endure much more and mobilize new forces if there is still hope. If he is extradited to the USA, he will try to kill himself - because he has no perspective there. It's different here. The worst thing about Belmarsh is the isolation. Otherwise the staff behave very correctly. In US prisons, as we know from numerous reports, the conditions are once again much worse.
Now, in January 2021, a court ruled that Assange may not be extradited for this very reason - because the conditions in a US prison are unreasonable for him for medical reasons. Assange's followers celebrated the judgment like a victory. You are more skeptical ...
The verdict is not a victory in two ways: it is dangerous for Assange and devastating to critical journalism around the world. From a procedural point of view, the verdict means that it is not Assange but the US government that can appeal against it - and then of course only on the one point in which it has not yet been approved, namely extradition. Here the government only has to say that we guarantee that we will treat Assange properly and that any death penalty will not be carried out. Then the next court could overturn the verdict and extradite Assange without dealing with all the other issues, such as torture, trial guarantees and freedom of the press.
What does the verdict mean for journalism?
The content of those points in the judgment in which the court expressly agrees with the Americans is particularly disastrous: According to this, journalists will no longer be allowed to receive secret documents in the future without making themselves liable to prosecution. The verdict says: What Assange did is not covered by freedom of the press and is already punishable in the United Kingdom under the US Espionage Act, but also under the British Official Secrets Act.
That should actually alarm the media. But after the initially enthusiastic partnership, the media have distanced themselves from Assange. Why?
I don't know whether there have been deals with individual media. Because basically the US authorities could follow all media that participated at the time - the New York Times, the Guardian or the Spiegel - just as much as Assange. It may well be that one is more cautious now. But it is also the case that the media have lost interest in Assange. That must be related to the rape allegations - I told you how that also led to rejection in my case. But it is also likely that Wikileaks has been squeezed out for as long as it has had spectacular revelations to offer, especially on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. After that, Wikileaks was dropped and made a scapegoat for everyone else. It's like bullying: Nobody was to blame, nobody intervened, nobody stands behind the victim.
The states concerned have shaken themselves and are continuing - although you have accused them of violating several principles of the rule of law: the prohibition of torture, freedom of the press, the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial. What does that mean?
This is very worrying. It means that the rule of law is just as dysfunctional in us as in those societies to which we would like to serve our values. We have illusions about the functionality of our constitutional state.
Hasn't that always been the case, or has it actually gotten worse?
It has always been like that. But the possibilities of technology have made the cooperation of corrupt international structures much more intensive. In the past, you had to drive through Europe with index cards and suitcases. Today you have the so-called back doors Access to any mobile phone. A postponement took place on September 11th. Of course, the secret services just want to protect us. But watch dogs bark at everyone, including the postman. That is why they should be kept on a safe leash. So we have to supervise our intelligence services much better. Today the secret services live in a parallel world. This is not a conspiracy theory, but inherent in the system. However, we can only keep the system alive in the long term if rules are really observed. This includes human rights and international law. Precisely because there are inadequate international sanctions in these areas, we in the West must insist that our values be binding on ourselves. This is the only way we can maintain the rule of law.
What can the West do in concrete terms?
The voters could actually implement the necessary changes democratically. Asber, that's difficult because politics is increasingly dominated by private interests. This brings us to the big question of how our economic system works. Basically we already have a kind of oligarchy in the West: Power is concentrated with a very few. The big tech companies control communications, social media, and our email accounts. The big media groups and the arms industry have enormous influence on politics.We have a conglomerate in which a separation of interests is hardly possible.
The autocrats of this world from Putin to Erdogan to the Chinese Communist Party will follow this development with a certain satisfaction. They see themselves legitimized by the undesirable developments in the West in restricting democratic rights.
I visited Turkey shortly after the coup attempt. 70 scientists were arrested at a university because the university had received funds from the Gülen movement. In a sense, they had the wrong frequent flyer card. We have to be careful where we are going. If we don't wake up and take political responsibility, the world is moving in a very dangerous direction.
The interview was conducted by Michael Maier.
These texts appeared in the weekend edition of the Berliner Zeitung - every Saturday at the kiosk or here by subscription.
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