Riding the 5:47 am tube in the dark of early dawn to Belmarsh prison on February 24th, I was wondering what the heck I was doing. A week before, I had no idea that I was going to buy a last-minute plane ticket to London to stand vigil at the preliminary hearing for Julian Assange’s extradition trial. A respected Facebook friend and fellow Wikileaks supporter had written on her wall that she was flying from the States to London. Luck had it that I wasn’t teaching that week and that there were still some cheap flights from Luxembourg, so I booked on a whim. But the decision was far from capricious: I felt that I owed this man whatever solidarity I could offer.
My flight was delayed, so I missed Saturday’s march in central London for Julian Assange organized by the Don’t Extradite Assange campaign. Over a thousand supporters attended the media-friendly event. Frankly, I hoped there had been more people, even if their only motivation was the possibility of hearing Roger Waters, Chrissie Hynde, M.I.A. or Brian Eno perform. At least in doing so, they would have gotten exposure to Julian Assange’s plight and grasp the real threat looming over our freedom of speech.
Knowing that an early morning vigil at a far-flung prison on a workday would attract even fewer people, I made sure I was going to be at Belmarsh bright and early for the first day of the extradition preliminary hearing. I had hardly slept the night before, worried that my alarm wouldn’t go off, worried about the availability of trains so early in the morning, and worried that I’d get lost. But mostly I worried about Julian Assange, as I often do. When I arrived after the nearly two-hour commute, dawn was breaking over the small tent village set up by a smattering of Julian’s most fervent supporters. The muddy site was decorated with posters and handwritten messages in several languages protesting Assange’s incarceration. Further on, I saw the media vans and television cameras set up to greet the US government’s legal team for the prosecution (a striking blond woman and three stereotypical, clean-cut G-men types) and the much friendlier-looking, yet slightly disheveled defense team. Without knowing who was who, I managed to figure out the “good guys” from the “bad guys” just on appearances.
Welcome to the Belmarsh Hunger Games.
Navigating Julian’s world got more complicated after that. I found myself next to a small group of people who were waiting to access the courthouse. I had no idea that sitting in the gallery would have been an option for me, but I was told that it was indeed possible. The person next to me, a perky red-headed Syrian woman who came in from Paris just for the day, did a quick head count and said if there were no glitches, then I might just get in. I found out that like me, she was part of the circle of concerned citizen-activists who made up the small, but earnest crowd outside. Little did I know that I was also among some big hitters on Assange’s team: human rights leaders, parliamentarians, and established alt-media journalists. On the ladder of Assange supporters, I was at the bottom rung, but somehow, I was also near the front of the line.
There were only 24 seats in the public gallery, and 6 of them were already reserved for Julian’s family and intimate friends. So that left 18 of us jockeying for those remaining spots. It’s sadly ironic that there were so few spots for a hearing of this importance. The paucity of seats made me feel guilty for even daring to stand in line. My Syrian friend assured me that I had the right to be there. A Polish translator and seasoned Assange activist who was standing next to me further insisted that I had my place there. That bolstered my confidence, but probably added to the tension that was mounting with each minute that dragged on as we waited for the gates to open. The waiting seemed to last an eternity, but finally, we were let in.
We managed to get through the gate, but then we found ourselves smashed up against the door to the Woolrich Crown Courthouse for the next 45 minutes, where we engaged in a horrible shoving match that none of us wanted to be in. I felt it was a sort of punishment intentionally inflicted on those supporting Julian Assange. To make matters worse, there were two doors, separated by a rope. Very few people were allowed to go through the door on the right. Pretty much everyone else went through the left door, which was virtually inaccessible with the crowd shoved up against it. Nonetheless, this was the door that the late-coming “official” press corps sauntered through, which made us dig our elbows into each other even more as we had to move over for them to come in. Rumors of spill-over, in which these journalists might end up taking the too few seats in the public gallery, got us all the more agitated. It was an ugly scene that none of us, no matter who we were, should have had to endure.
Eventually, I made it into the building with my new friends. I think I was the second-to-the-last person allowed in , but I had no time to breathe a sigh of relief. Once we went through security, it was a frantic race up the stairs, and I found myself darting around like a mouse in a maze until I made it to the next holding pen- a small vestibule/thoroughfare not at all suited as a waiting area. The shoving match continued among the “winners” of the first rounds who so far gained access to the hearing. The Hunger Games, which started at 6 am, intensified as we were approaching 9 am. I can say the prison authorities were doing an excellent job of destroying any feeling of comraderie and solidarity among us.
I did get to know the higher-tiered Assange supporters a little better, but because of the (intentional?) lack of concern that the court had in dealing with the public, I can say the exchanges were far from cordial, and that’s a pity. I wondered why these people, European deputies, human rights observers, and respected Assange chroniclers, were relegated to the rafters. At this point, even after filtering through one door after another for three hours, it was still not certain we would have a seat in the gallery, so we were all more determined than ever to get in. It was a surreal experience having to dispute over these seats; there should be so many more for a hearing of this magnitude. It’s insane that this wasn’t managed better from the get-go. The last thing Julian Assange needed was ill will among his supporters.
I did somehow manage to get in to the gallery.
There were two rows of twelve seats in the rafters. I was in the back row, and while I was unable to see the entire floor below. I reckoned I was able to see about 3/4 of the courtroom: the 36 some-odd seats reserved for “official” media, a smaller gallery for various observers and spokespeople like Jen Robinson, the central area for the counsel (of which I could only see the defense team from my vantage point), the judge’s stand and the holding dock where Julian Assange was to sit behind a thick bullet-proof glass pane. Even though I was in the nose-bleed section, I was thankful I that I was even there at all. This is when I met some of Julian’s inner circle.
I gave a “namaste” gesture to Julian’s father, John Shipton, as he walked past me, and he gave me a tender peck on the forehead. I was touched by his gentle demeanor, as I was with former ambassador Craig Murray’s, one of Julian’s closest allies and the purported courier of the DNC files. These are unassuming, good souls, I thought. I sat in awe of these people and others in the gallery, like Kristinn Hrafnsson, WikiLeaks’ editor-in-chief, political comedian Randy Credico and respected alt journalist Kevin Gosztola, people whose articles and interviews have been a part of my news feed for years. I really felt out of my league. To make up for it, I wrote furiously on bits of paper my Syrian friend kept feeding to me. I wanted to make up for being so small.
I looked around me: most of the people were filling up pages of their notebooks, realizing that not all of the 30-odd members of the press corps below would be reporting the whole story (in fact, much of the reporting in the British dailies was very biased against Assange, if there was any reporting at all). The independent journalists and international observers in the rafters were there to balance out the shoddy reporting from some of these mainstream sources. Every pitchfork has several prongs, so I could only hope that the collective efforts of everyone in the audience would be able to substantively plead Julian’s case to the more skeptical members of the real jury- that of the public at large.
The day was broken down to include two coffee breaks and lunch. Every time there was a break, we needed to take all our belongings, so we couldn’t save our seats. Hence, we got to engage in this sado-masochistic pursuit of musical chairs three times that day, with two stressed-out wardens unable to maintain order. Had the system been set up better, we could have been networking rather elbowing.
I haven’t even touched on the court proceedings, which just added to this extremely surreal day. I will not get into the details of the first day’s arguments given by both sides, as I feel there are much better accounts given by pros such as Kevin Gosztola here. But I will bulletpoint here some of the more noteworthy observations of the day. Keep in mind that I can only speak as a concerned citizen and English teacher. This is what I noticed:
- While Julian Assange looked better than that bearded man that was hauled off to Belmarsh in April 2019, he looked frail, subdued, and well beyond his 48 years. He still managed to greet us in the gallery with a raised fist. It felt appropriate given the Hunger Games atmosphere of the day. It also made me feel hopeful and sad at the same time.
- The judge, Vanessa Barraitser, looks like those hook-nosed witches that you find in a Grimm’s fairy tale book. She acts like one, too. I saw that she was far more accommodating with the prosecution than with the defense. She was downright mean to Julian Assange, dismissive in his request to be able to sit next to his legal team or even just to get the speakers working properly in his sealed-off dock so he could hear the arguments over his fate.
- The prosecution handed out a printed summary of their arguments to the press as if they were communiqués, which I found odd. This turned out to be very handy for the lazy mainstream dailies, because all they had to do is cut and paste them into their articles the next day. This resulted in uneven treatment of the day’s proceedings, with the bias against you-know-who. Four months later, I’m getting déjà-vu over the new allegations against Assange and people associated with him. Essentially, the prosecution is recycling these communiqués and adding on to them, a bit like Legos.
- The 18 counts against Julian Assange don’t hold water for so many reasons, and look more like a very vicious vendetta by the US State Department at Julian Assange for calling out the USA for all sorts of sins. From a semantics standpoint, I felt that James Lewis QC’s prosecutorial arguments were weak, circuitous and downright boring. In fact, he was so long-winded that one of the guards in the courtroom dozed off at one point.
- The defense presented much stronger arguments, but didn’t play hardball, in my opinion. The microphones in the courtroom were poorly adapted to giving testimony while standing up. Defense counsel Edward Fitzgerald QC, a pretty tall man, had to place his notes on a stack of cardboard boxes that he fashioned into a poor-man’s lectern. Appearances are a major part of any testimony, so a dishoveled, kindly man stooped over a pile of cardboard boxes is not going to make a bold impression. I honestly wish the defense team had sharked-up their game, because Judge Barraitser was clearly on the side of the prosecution.
- There were also many horrible things I heard about but didn’t actually see, like the numerous strip searches and cuffings Julian Assange had to go through prior to entering the courtroom. We can only imagine the hell he’s going through behind bars, often in solitude.
The first day’s proceeding came to a close, and we left the Woolrich Crown Courthouse and into the daylight. Here, I got to see the higher tiers in action, giving brilliant interviews in front of a sea of reporters. I also came back down to earth and into my world- the sometimes wacky, loud, eclectic, soulful and surprisingly international assembly of people that spent the day on the outside looking in not just battling the elements, but also injustice and indifference.
I then retraced my route back to where I started over 12 hours before. I looked at the passengers in the tube, wondering if they even had a clue that our freedom of speech was weighing in the balance over the fate of one person, someone who was languishing away in their own backyard? Did they realize that any harm falls upon Julian Assange will impact all journalists and whistle blowers, leaving us all vulnerable to the whims of an increasingly malevolent ruling class?
I grabbed a free copy of that day’s Evening Standard and sure enough, the talking points outlined in the prosecution’s communiqué won over the headline and the bulk of the article’s content. I gathered it was because the defense team hadn’t presented their arguments until the afternoon, so perhaps there was a deadline to consider. However, it wasn’t much better with more respected newspapers such as The Guardian, The Independent, The Telegraph and The Times the following morning. At the local café, I grabbed all the papers and flipped through the pages, trying to find the articles buried within (the freshly condemned Harvey Weinstein and the fast-approaching Corona virus took up the front page of all the papers). What I saw were scarcely better versions of the article I read in the free rag I read the evening before. It’s so damned ironic that journalists would shoot themselves in the foot by not digging just a little deeper for the truth. One day they could end up sharing Assange’s fate. Or is it perhaps they’re being held hostage by their editors, forced to serve as propaganda mouthpieces?
I made it back across London to the quiet, upscale neighborhood in Kew at about 7 pm, completely drained. I sat down in the kitchen with my lovely hostess and good friend, but I felt I was in another world, a much darker place. Over the dinner that I struggled to eat (in spite of it being delicious), I tried to bring her into my world as I needed to share this with someone, anyone. There was expected pushback- stuff about Julian Assange smearing excrement on the walls of the Ecuadorian embassy, his committing rape and not being appreciative to the embassy staff during his asylum. It wasn’t worth fighting that; I was too emotionally drained.
My alarm didn’t go off the next morning, which was just as well, as I was completely wiped out. Instead, I attended a conference at St Pancras organized by RT, featuring heartful, erudite speakers that have filled my podcast list over the years: George Galloway, Peter Lavelle and Alexander Mercouris. It was a relief to find myself among the “woke”, the ones who understand the stakes. I wish there had been more people attending; the fate of Julian Assange deserves the world’s attention.
I finished off my impromptu trip to London with one last visit to Belmarsh and the Woolrich Crown Courthouse. This was Day 3 of the 4-day hearing, and things had calmed down. There were fewer TV vans and less of a crowd clamoring to get in. The make-shift tent village outside the prison, however, had grown and become a settlement that the prison and the surrounding neighborhood thankfully tolerated.
The rigamarole of gaining access to the gallery was less stressful this time, which allowed some of us to become reacquainted on friendlier terms. I guess this could be seen as a minor victory against those who don’t want us joining forces, sharing resources, and working together for Julian Assange, for justice and the freedom of speech and to be informed.
It’s hard to express how I felt after going into such a dark place that is unknown to so many. To witness first-hand injustice in so many forms is disturbing at best, but what really crushes me is the indifference and the pushback from the general public, especially those who are well-educated and supposedly well-informed. It makes everything else seem so frivolous, even at that moment when we were about to enter a worldwide pandemic. As I got on the plane back to Luxembourg, I wondered if people would notice a physical change in me caused by this emotional upheaval.
Was it a mistake going there? I answer that question with a resounding “No!”. I wasn’t sure what I could contribute to the cause, but I feel as a teacher, a local activist, a social media junkie, a mother, a budding writer and concerned world citizen, that this trip was justified. I could enlighten people in my own small way. We need all voices to spread the word everywhere we can: not just through the media, but in classrooms, kitchen tables and cafés. While this tribunal deserved to be held in a stadium to accommodate thousands of citizen journalists like myself, for now we’ll have to make do spreading the word in our own way. We have to be the Paul Reveres in a world that’s closing in on us.
Julian Assange will be celebrating his 49th birthday in Belmarsh prison, quite possibly alone in his cell. His conditions have been so horrendous that fellow inmates at this high-security facility (reserved for the most dangerous of criminals) protested on his behalf. What did he do to deserve this? Publish? Smear poop? Not wear a condom? Be smug? This is why I’m asking you to give Julian Assange a long-overdue gift on his birthday: give him a fair shake, understand the stakes, and talk about him to anyone who’s willing to lend an ear.