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Journalist John Rees Describes 'Farcical' Experience of Listening to Assange's Hearing by Audio Link

© Mohamed ElmaaziJohn Rees Westminster Magistrate's Court 19 December 2019 No 1
John Rees Westminster Magistrate's Court 19 December 2019 No 1 - Sputnik International
The court hearing Julian Assange's extradition case has been struggling to properly facilitate proceedings for public and press while ensuring COVID-19 related social distancing rules are being implemented in England.

Journalist, author and historian John Rees, of WikiLeaks's Don't Extradite Assange Campaign, attended Julian Assange's latest extradition hearing on 27 April via audio link.

Rees explained via video link what it was like trying to follow proceedings in court as well as his thoughts regarding the Judge's decision to postpone the second part of Assange's case due to difficulties associated with the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) lockdown. When Mr Rees uses the term 'the trial' he is referring to the substantive extradition hearings currently under way in England rather than the actual trial which would be held in the US if Assange is extradited.

Sputnik: What is your initial reaction to the judge's decision regarding part two of Assange's hearing?

John Rees: Well, I'm very glad that happened. I mean previously, as you'll know, she wanted to stick to the 18th of May date for the second part of the trial. [District Judge Vanessa Baraitser was] almost obsessively determined to start on that date. It's now clear that it is absolutely impossible under the current circumstances. The defence lawyers - Julian Assange's lawyers - and the prosecution lawyers agreed that was the case. And so the judge was left with very little choice but to agree to a postponement.

Sputnik: The judge decided to adjourn the hearing on the basis that parties would not be able to be present physically. But she did not appear to grant any significance to the fact that Assange’s lawyers can’t properly access their client nor that the video conferencing room poses a health threat to the WikiLeaks publisher.

What do you think about Judge Baraitser’s refusal to lend any meaningful weight to the fact that the lawyers continue to have problems in accessing their client properly?

John Rees: Well, I think that's an important point. She has, through out the entirety of these hearings, been absolutely unwilling to intervene to make sure that the lawyers have access to their client. She continually, in the hearing today and in the previous hearings, says that's up to the prison authorities. She said today the prison authorities say that it's safe. It doesn't matter that Julian Assange has had independent medical advice telling him not to go through the prison, not to use the video room.

You might at least think that she would inquire on what basis the prison authorities think that it's safe. This is a prison authority which has had two prisoners die in its prison. I mean, who knows whether or not they told the relatives or the prisoners themselves that they were safe the day before they lost their lives.

So, what the prison authorities' advice is worth on the safety of their prisoners isn't quite clear. Neither is it clear that the judge knows on what grounds that advice was given. Does she knows the video room is sanitised between [each] prisoner using it?

Does she know whether or not the corridor is sanitised before people move through them?

I doubt that she even knows - and I further doubt whether - that's true.

So I think this is completely irresponsible on the judge's part. I think she would have responsibility for whether or not it was a fair trial in her courtroom, and there can't be a fair trial with this level of access between lawyer and client.

Sputnik: How did you follow the proceedings and what was it like? Did you follow it by video link or audio link?

John Rees: I followed it by audio link. Now, in the last hearing I followed by audio link as well.  And that was quite difficult at times to hear what was going on. But by and large it was just about adequate. This time it was absolutely and completely useless.

Not only could you not hear what Ed Fitzgerald or James Lewis were saying at all, you simply could not make it out. The conference call facility that the court uses is so antiquated that every time a journalist joins the call it is announced by an automated announcement, 'So, and so from The Times has joined the call'. Every time a journalist leaves the call that is also announced by an automated voice which says, 'so and so from the [Press Association] has left the call'.

And there are a great number of journalists coming and going and so quite large parts of the proceedings are simply obliterated by an automated voice interrupting your ability to listen to the trial at all.

And then even when those automated voices aren't interrupting you the lawyers themselves are completely inaudible. And then we reached the farcical level where the judge had to appoint a court official to repeat into the microphone, word for word, what Ed Fitzgerald and others in the court were saying.

So we were having a kind of English to English translation from inaudible to barely audible. And to add insult to injury the judge then says, 'okay, the trial could go ahead because lawyers will have to use imaginative ways of conducting the trial and witnesses [may] appear by video link'.

Well, all I can say is if the access the press was given [today] is an indication of the technological sophistication of the court, that is simply improbable to the point of being unbelievable.

Sputnik: Do you think we can expect a renewed bail application to be made if the parties agree to fix the case to restart in November?

John Rees: Well, I think the whatever the start date turns out to be - whether that is July or November and that will be decided at the further hearing next week - I think it's unreasonable to expect Julian Assange to remain in custody in the middle of an epidemic.

Clearly whatever you think about where we are with the epidemic nationally, it's clear from the Prime Minister today that he doesn't think the peak has been passed yet. But even if it were, it wouldn't be passed in care homes and it wouldn't be passed in prison where there's a captive population and a completely different rate of transmission.

So it is simply a danger to Julian Assange's life to leave him in prison.

Sputnik: What are the next steps that the Don't Extradite Assange campaign will be taking and will be asking others to take?

John Rees: As you'll probably know we have currently have a petition running with tens of thousands of people who have now signed it insisting that Julian Assange should be released on bail.

We have a lobbying tool on our website so that people can put in their post code, find out who their local MP is, and have an automatic formulated letter that they can just hit the send button and send to their MP and hundreds of people have been lobbying their MP on the same issue.

In normal times we would be campaigning in public meetings, in public protests on the street. We would have pronounced outside the court this morning. Currently we're campaigning online. We've now got a weekly series of open online meetings which are being watched by 20, 30, 40,000 people. In real time and in the 48 hours after they're broadcast. So we are working very, very strenuously to keep the Assange case in the public eye and to put forward the arguments that he should be released.

We had a meeting with John Kiriakou on Saturday, the former CIA operative, who was describing, as others have done, what the [District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia] is like. That this is the espionage court, that there's very little chance of a fair trial [in the US]. And so we're hoping by giving those people who know about these things a much amplified voice that we'll be able to convince people generally in society - and perhaps the judicial process itself - that extradition simply isn't a reasonable way to proceed here.

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