Julian Assange: The 21st Century Version of ‘The Man In The Iron Mask’
“A man is held to be criminal, sometimes, by the great ones of the earth, not because he has committed a crime himself but because he knows of one which has been committed.”
― Alexandre Dumas, The Man In The Iron Mask
In 1669, an unnamed prisoner was brought to the prison of Pignerol (present-day Pinerol) in Piedmont from Dunkirk. He was joined by the disgraced Comte de Lauzun in 1671 and, in 1679, by an Italian diplomat, the double-dealing Comte Mattioli. This unidentified prisoner served as a valet to Nicolas Fouquet who had been the finance minister under King Louis XIV of France (1643–1715) and had been arrested by a real musketeer, Benigne de Saint-Mars in 1661, for embezzlement. A few years later Saint-Mars had been appointed the governor of Pignerol. When Saint-Mars was subsequently appointed governor of Exiles and then of the Bastille in 1698 the same long-serving prisoner again went with him, hidden in a closed carriage and forbidden to speak. Du Junca, the deputy-governor, observed that on arrival he was masked and that his name was “not to be spoken”.
This mystery reached its nadir when in 1751 Voltaire claimed to have been reliably informed by an eye witness that this masked man was the King’s own brother. The iron mask that he was forced to wear was necessary to keep his identity a secret as such knowledge could jeopardise the royal succession. From that moment this mysterious story moved into the realm of political intrigue and conspiracy which was completely fulfilled in the books written between 1847 and 1850 by Alexander Dumas and became the iconic story we know today involving D’Artagnan and the other famous musketeers created by Dumas. The Man In The Iron Mask is the last part of the third book in a trilogy known as the D’Artagnan Romances. But the idea of a man incarcerated for 34 years, his face permanently covered, whether with an iron mask, or a velvet mask, and his identity kept completely secret is perhaps more disturbing to us today as our understanding of the detrimental and destructive effects of sustained solitary confinement upon the mind is incontrovertible.
For me this treatment of an individual has clear resonances with the treatment of Julian Assange that has taken place during his confinement in the Embassy of Ecuador in London, his time at Belmarsh Maximum Security prison and Assange’s possible future incarceration, if extradited and then found guilty in America. If Assange is found guilty in America he would face life in a supermax prison and be faced with ‘‘special administrative measures’’ or SAM’s as they are very euphemistically titled. There is nothing administrative about any of these measures.
The application of SAMs has been shown to be, as the Center for Constitutional Rights and Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School did in their 2017 report, “the darkest corner of the US federal prison system, combining the brutality and isolation of maximum security units with additional restrictions that deny individuals almost any connection to the human world.” Restrictions involve “gag orders on prisoners, their family members, and their attorneys, effectively shielding this extreme use of government power from public view.” Not so much The Man In The Iron Mask but now the men in the masks of iron. In this punitive ‘The Men in the Masks of Iron’ Kafkaesque nightmare, prisoners can be subject to such administrative measures, indefinitely.
Of course we know the identity of the prisoner in our case, it is Julian Assange. But do we? What strikes me having read many of the deliberately limited number of reports from the Assange Extradition Hearing, is the way the prosecution is attempting to characterise and reconfigure his identity as Julian Assange. He is being presented as an unprincipled man intent on causing harm and damage to the security of America. And without any guilt at the naming of informants who may well be placed in danger due to his revelations. At the very heart of this portrayal is the comment attributed to Assange whilst at a dinner in early July 2010 with Luke Harding and David Leigh of the Guardian newspaper, a few weeks prior to the publication of the Afghan War Diaries: “They’re informants, they deserve to die.” John Goetz of Der Spiegel was also at that dinner and has categorically refuted that Assange made such a comment.
Goetz in his testimony made a great effort to set the record straight about Assange and the publication of un-redacted US diplomatic cables. The picture that emerges from Goetz is not Assange the reckless cavalier indifferent to human life but of a more considered publisher, working with news organisations to redact the names of informants, insisting on the use of encrypted communications, cognisant of the risk of harm facing them. But this is not the face of Assange that the prosecution want the world to see. They want the metaphorical iron mask kept on Assange so that they can recreate the image of the man they require, inside. In fact the whole extradition hearing is as if a giant iron mask has been placed over the operation of due process and the operation of a fair trial.
Assange is being held at Belmarsh Maximum Security prison. The British version of the Bastille. Before that he was incarcerated in the Embassy of Ecuador. Here he was able to communicate but those conversations were being listened into and recorded. Now he is in Belmarsh under maximum security protocols used for terrorists. And now in his hearing, the prosecution on behalf of the American government have objected to just about every piece of evidence that the defence has wanted to present.
Where the testimonies of defence witnesses are allowed just half-an-hour, the cross-examination by prosecutors runs into hours. Where expert defence witnesses have their expertise questioned and undermined and their integrity questioned. Where the presiding Judge Vanessa Baraitser has a conflict of interest in the content of the indictments and seems from her propensity to read from pre-written judgements before hearing any oral testimony on issues contemporaneously arising within the hearing, to be a puppet of the British and American governments. She has refused a request to allow Assange to sit with his defence team and not sit inside a glass cage where the audio is poor. She has allowed the continuation of strip searching Assange every time he attends court, handcuffs continuously and removal of court papers.
The prosecution did not object to the removal of these punitive and psychologically disruptive measures. Assange is still innocent until proven guilty but if you have been following the hearing then you know the inverse is true. Assange is having to prove his innocence from a position that is so being weighted against the application of due legal process that I would class this as a mistrial. But of course the presiding judge must declare so and if she is in the pocket of the British and American governments then that is never going to happen. My point exactly. This is not a hearing or a trial it is a British 21st century session of the infamous Peoples Court of Nazi Germany. There was no defence here. It was for political prisoners to be dispatched away with. Due process was a sham. But I suppose it made the criminals running the show feel legitimate and justified with their warped sense of patriotism thrown in for good measure.
‘The Man in the Iron Mask’ spent thirty-four years in prison without trial, the heavy security and the total isolation ordered by the King of France, all suggest that he was a threat to the crown and a victim of state tyranny. And that is exactly how Trump and his goon squad visualise Julian Assange. He is getting a trial but the quality of that trial for me and for many, invalidates the proceedings. It is a show-trial. And it is going very very badly for the prosecution because the case against Assange is pure smoke and mirrors. For me some words of Shakespeare perfectly encapsulate this charade of a prosecution case:
‘‘It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
And that is what is taking place within the courtroom, as the prosecution in the form of James Lewis QC, not only attacks the credibility of highly qualified and respected defence witnesses, but even turns on the highly compliant Judge in apoplectic rage, when the witness does not answer in a binary fashion, (Yes or No). The prosecution is being given every advantage possible by an acquiescent Judge and still the prosecution are discontented and frustrated.
This attempt to silence the truth is not going well as the truth is finding its way into court slowly but surely. If it wasn't for Assange then the serious criminal accusations made by Khaled el-Masri about his rendition and torture by CIA operatives would never have been corroborated as fact. Mr. el-Masri was due to give evidence to the court on Day 13 but the videolink failed, even though the defence team had been able to speak to him by video a few hours earlier.
As Craig Murray writes in his eye-witness blog of Day 13:
‘‘Technical staff in the court having been unable to resolve the (ahem) technical issue, rather than simply postpone his evidence until a videolink had been established — as had happened already with two other witnesses when quality issues arose — Judge Baraitser suddenly decided to raise again the issue of whether el-Masri’s evidence should be heard at all.
James Lewis QC for the US Government stated that they did not merely oppose his evidence of being tortured. They opposed the making of any claim that a Wikileaks-released cable showed that they had put pressure on the government of Germany not to arrest those allegedly concerned in his alleged extradition. The US Government had not pressurised the Government of Germany, Lewis said. Mark Summers QC for the defence said that the Supreme Chamber of the European Court in Strasbourg had already judged his claims to be true, and that the Wikileaks cable plainly and inarguably showed the US Government exerting pressure on Germany.’’
Mark Summers QC read out the statement by Khaled el-Masri. What was done to Mr el-Masri is truly sickening and impossible to equate with the idea that this could be of help in the defense of America or in maintaining its security. There has been no accountability for the crimes committed against el-Masri in the USA. However, the ECHR judgement and supporting documentation had been sent to the office of the US Attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia — precisely the same office that was now attempting to extradite Assange — and that office had declined to prosecute the CIA officers concerned.
However, although the powers that be in America had failed to seek justice for Mr el-Masri a complaint had been made to the International Criminal Court which included the Wikileaks material. In March 2020 the ICC had announced it was opening an investigation. In response US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had declared any non-US citizen who cooperated with that ICC investigation, including officers of the ICC, would be subject to financial and other sanctions. It is clear that the American government now is following an aggressive strategy of silencing those who wish to hold acts perpetrated by agents of the American state to account. Any International Order still left in the world, is further undermined and nullified.
Lettres de cachet were letters signed by the king of France which enforced an arbitrary action without the right to appeal. The best known were penal and meant imprisonment without any trial and without any opportunity of defense. These lettres de cachet were a prominent symbol of the abuses of the ancien regime monarchy and were suppressed by the Revolution in France in 1789. The use of the Espionage Act with such relish by the Trump administration is reminiscent, I suggest, of these Lettres.
The Espionage Act was designed and then applied during one of the most politically repressive periods in American history, when Woodrow Wilson’s administration targeted dissidents. As human rights attorney and historian Carey Shenkman testified to the Assange hearing a few days ago:
‘‘Although the law allowed for the prosecution of spies, the conduct it prescribed went well beyond spying.”
The Act became the primary:
“tool for what President Wilson dubbed his administration’s ‘firm hand of stern repression’ against opposition to US participation in the war.”
He stated that it also:
“reflected the government’s desire to control information and public opinion regarding the war effort.”
Furthermore, its broadness lies in how it criminalises information: not merely “national security information” but all material falling under the umbrella of “national defence” information. It was part of the Trump administration’s desire “to escalate prosecutions as well as ‘jailing journalists who publish classified information.’ The Espionage Act’s breath provides such a means.
But of course in Julian Assange’s case it is being used extra-territorially. Julian Assange is not an American citizen nor did the alleged charges take place upon American soil. Not only is it very rare for the Espionage Act to be used this will be the first time it has been used extra-territorially upon a journalist and publisher. Throughout the Assange extradition hearing, the US Government has insisted that it has the right to prosecute any journalist and publication, anywhere in the world, for publication of US classified information.
A precedent is being attempted that will if successful have seismic consequences for free speech anywhere and everywhere in the world. If the extradition of Julian Assange is successful (with an obliging and tame Judge presiding it looks like a fait accompli already) then this sets another precedent. This will be an extradition of a journalist and publisher for purely political reasons. The evidence from the defence has proven that the redacted files (redactions demanded and imposed by Julian Assange) were in the public interest. I am sure any man or woman upon the Bondi or Bourke Street tram or upon the Clapham omnibus would concur.
However, if Julian Assange is extradited to America and because he has been charged under the Espionage Act he will be denied the right to a ‘public interest defense’. The information provided by Assange (and others who have not been prosecuted) is clearly of substantive value to the public. The American people in particular (and all of us) have a right to know who its government is killing and how it makes such decisions. Transparency ensures due process and ethical decision-making. I quote from ‘Special Comm. on Commc’ns Law, The Espionage and Secrecy Provisions of the Proposed New Federal Criminal Code, 31 REC. ASS’N B. CITY N.Y. 572, 573–74 (1976) in the Harvard Law Review on United States v Rosen (2006):
‘‘[O]ur military establishment exists for the purpose of defending the United States, and “the United States” means not just a certain territory and the physical well-being of its inhabitants, but a political system whose core is the freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment. . . . The Constitution contemplates that the people will oversee, criticize and finally control the operations of our government, of which national defense is of course a part. The people obviously cannot do this without access to the facts. . . . This basic democratic control is as important to the national security as the preservation of the most highly valued military secrets.’’
The Trump administration have decided to tread upon foreign soil where the Obama administration did not. The evidence has not changed. The facts have not changed. But the political wind and will has changed.
The name of The Man In The Iron Mask was not allowed to be spoken and his identity kept secret. We, today will be denied the freedom to speak of America and of any regime to reveal its crimes and misdemeanors if Assange is extradited. We will be denied the information to identify its victims. For if we do challenge this denial of free speech then we shall be denied our liberty and our fate sealed by a mask of legal iron and the removal of our identity in a penal system of calculated inhumanity and systematic existential eradication.