Baltasar Garzon is no stranger to conflict when it comes to fighting injustice carried out by state powers. In an exclusive interview with RT, the Spanish jurist explained why WikiLeaks founder and whistleblower Julian Assange is “worth defending.”
The seemingly intractable battle between Ecuador and Britain over Julian Assange has brought a spotlight on the dangerous path whistleblowers tread in exposing abuses of state power.
With Assange holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since June, the small Latin American country’s decision to grant the WikiLeaks founder political asylum sits in heavy contrast to the fact that he lives under lock and key like a fugitive, in constant fear of arrest.
In the midst of this international standoff, Garzon spoke at length with RT’s sister channel Actualidad RT about why the UK was only bluffing when British authorities threatened to storm the Ecuadorian embassy, why he has no doubt the US is pursuing a case against his client, and the irony that Assange is being persecuted for exposing gross human rights violations, while the perpetuators who committed those criminal acts remain free.
RT: You’ve said that everything that’s happening to Julian Assange is extreme injustice. Why is that?
Baltasar Garzon: It is injustice, because the US is conducting a criminal investigation into WikiLeaks – that’s according to few, but nevertheless very reliable, reports. This case targets mostly Julian Assange, but other founders of the organization are also involved. In this respect, it is absolutely clear to us that such investigation and prosecution of a journalist who was, in essence, just doing his job, violates freedom of speech in the US, a country which prides itself in always defending freedom of speech, a value firmly stipulated in its constitution.
This is a big concern, and largely this was the reason why Julian Assange decided to seek refuge from Sweden in the Ecuadorian embassy, because he knew that he could’ve been extradited to the US. That’s what it was all about. And Ecuador took this responsibility and granted diplomatic and political asylum to Julian Assange. So Mr. Assange and his defense team don’t have to justify this decision – he exercised his fundamental right. It is clear that political asylum was granted, because Julian Assange was facing terrible injustice. And this is what we are fighting against at the moment, and we will continue to fight and prove that there is no reason to prosecute Mr. Assange.
Also, Julian Assange is ready to give his statement, he is ready to be questioned in Sweden, submit himself to other procedures, but only if he is guaranteed that it would not lead to a more complicated case, in which his right to freedom of speech and information would be violated.
RT: Before we talk about his possible extradition to the US, you’ve said that Julian Assange is not avoiding prosecution in Sweden, he is avoiding extradition to the US. You also mentioned that the Swedish case against Julian Assange has no grounds, and the charges that were brought against him are not very clear. What did you mean by that?
BG: I meant that, according to the information we have about this case – the testimony of Julian Assange and some documents that we were able to get our hands on – this case has no grounds. When he came to the UK and the court had not yet ruled on his extradition case, Julian Assange told Swedish prosecutors that he was ready to cooperate. He said that earlier too, even before he left Sweden; he even offered to come back for questioning. And he is still ready to do that, only now he is asking the prosecutor to come to the UK and question him. This is not rebellious behavior. On the other hand, we respect the judicial system of Sweden, we have no objective reasons not to trust it, but we think that their approach is too harsh – they want Julian Assange to come to Sweden for questioning.
RT: In your opinion, why did Sweden take this, as you say, harsh approach? You said that you can accept their terms under one condition. But is there some legal framework for this? How can a country guarantee that it won’t extradite a person into another country in the future?
BG: Nothing is impossible. We, on our part, are doing everything we can. There are two factors here that we are considering. First, the UK is legally obliged to fulfill Sweden’s demands, because the Supreme Court made this ruling. But, we think it is also their obligation to protect Mr. Assange’s right to political asylum. And we think that this right to political asylum needs to be defended and, at this point, we consider it prevalent.
I don’t understand why Julian Assange needs to be present in person at this questioning. That’s their demand, but nobody can explain to us why this has to happen in Sweden, not in London, especially now, when he has been granted political asylum and is under diplomatic protection of the Ecuadorian embassy.
RT: The guarantees have to be determined, so how likely is it that Sweden, being aware that death penalty is practiced in the US, will extradite Assange?
BG: We don’t know. We don’t even know whether Sweden would agree to extradite Julian Assange. There’s a certain procedure to be observed: when any country that doesn’t administer capital punishment is requested to extradite a person, it has to be assured by the requesting party that the death penalty will not be carried out even if it is passed. It’s not even about administering or not administering the death penalty anymore, but rather about a recognized right of political and diplomatic asylum.
There is a country, Ecuador in this case, that maintains that the case is political rather than criminal. So we can’t really discuss extradition to the US, because Julian Assange has been granted political asylum. There’s no chance of an extradition request to be satisfied. The thing is, this is a case of a severe infringement of human rights.
Ecuador’s decision to grant Julian Assange asylum, evoke his right for it, the right that was provided for by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and other international treaties, as well as in numerous constitutions, Ecuador’s being one of them. It’s not a right per se, it becomes one when it’s recognized. Right now Julian Assange is a political refugee and cannot be prosecuted for the actions that served as the basis for his receiving asylum in the first place.
RT: The problem is that he can’t really exercise this constitutional right.
BG: Actually, he is exercising it right now. He can’t be attacked or arrested. Storming the embassy would be inconceivable, especially after the statements made by such international organizations as the Organization of American States, and before that the UN, in accordance with the Security Council resolution that condemned the attacks on the British Embassy in Tehran last November and reiterated that the premises of embassies are inviolate. I think Britain made a hollow threat. And yes, he is exercising his rights, but in a very limited fashion, since he’s living in the embassy under its protection.
RT: Exactly, in a very limited fashion. He has been granted asylum, but he is accommodated in a small room that measures 4 square meters, and among other things, this can go on for a long time. Is there any chance that he’s simply trying to wear the British authorities out?
BG: There is no time limit to resolve this situation. A diplomatic solution is possible. I don’t know whether this is being discussed and whether there is any progress. A legal solution is also possible, if both countries go to the International Court of Justice, whose ruling they are bound to obey by the Vienna Convention Protocol.
All in all, Julian Assange and his supporters are powerless in the face of a political, diplomatic or legal decision. We can express our opinions, we can contribute to the process by providing documents and expertise, we can give advice on what to do, but we can’t make the final decision, because we are not authorized to. Julian Assange has a right to political asylum, and it can be disputed and defended, but he is not the one deciding the outcome.
RT: You said that Britain is unlikely to storm the embassy, but when asylum was granted, tensions ran high and the British authorities made their threats, some media outlets pointed out that British law provides for revoking the status of a diplomatic mission.
BG: First of all, that was before Julian Assange was granted asylum; I think it was the day before. I will not assess Britain’s actions – they were, in fact, politically motivated, but I won’t go into detail as to the reasons behind them. In any case, as I’ve already said, the threats were not realistic. But there is such a law. It was adopted in 1987 in the wake of the events concerning the Libyan embassy. A woman was shot, and the suspect in this crime, which was labeled “terrorism”, evaded prosecution. So in 1987, Britain adopted this law that was cited as the basis for revoking diplomatic immunity.
Julian Assange’s case, however, is in no way similar to the situation I just described, and it also affects a third country that recognizes the right to political asylum. In the case of the Libyan embassy, no one was granted asylum and, in the end, the embassy’s premises were not violated. In my opinion, this law is inapplicable to Julian Assange’s situation. And up until now nothing of the sort has happened, it was just rhetoric. Judging by that, I would say we should engage in dialogue to find a diplomatic and political solution, or, alternatively, wait for the Ecuadorian government to decide.
RT: You say that you have proof that the US is conducting a secret investigation. Do you think it’s legal to conduct such investigations?
BG: Every country has a practice of conducing secret investigations, of course, if there are good reasons for that. We don’t know whether the US has such a reason in this case. But we know for sure that the case has been opened – the US government admitted the fact. We also know that no official charges have been brought against Mr. Assange so far. But it only means he is not charged at the moment, they could as well charge him any time in the future. We also know that the US continues to gather data on the case and, theoretically, it could be the source for indictment, which would supposedly be used to issue an international arrest warrant.
In line with US law, we have sent a request to the American authorities to confirm that they are indeed conducting an investigation of his activities. If that’s so, why then is Mr. Assange’s defense not taking part in it? If the defense has no access to the case, then in what way is the ongoing collection of evidence consistent with US legislation?
As soon as we clear that up, we’ll be able to say whether this case is in line with the law. So far, the statements made by some prominent American politicians indicate that he could be indicted under the Espionage Act, a law which has not been enforced since the Cold War. I do not think Mr. Assange is a spy. He merely published information he received from outside sources through WikiLeaks; information that was available to thousands of people. All he did was exercise his right to freedom of information – he received and shared it.
I am much more surprised that there has been no investigation into the glaring crimes documented in those leaked reports featuring the US interference – via different channels of information or proxies in various states – with issues that have absolutely no relation to either national security or the safety of the American citizens or defense, but rather are indicative of the internal disorder in the United States.
RT: You said pressure is put not only on Julian Assange, but on those around him, too. Have you experienced any kind of pressure yourself? And, why did you decide to take up the case?
BG: This case is worth defending, and that’s exactly why I joined the team without asking for any remuneration. Fundamental human rights have been violated here. A man who has not committed any crime is being persecuted. I knew it was worth it the moment I took it up. Despite the pressure, we will continue to do what we have to do and that is to defend our client’s interests. It’s clear that it’s not only Mr. Assange who’s been exposed to the pressure. But I will not go into details right now. We’ll talk about that later.
RT: I’d like to turn to the peace process that’s underway in Colombia between the government and the FARC rebels. You called President Santos a brave man and said that the process is going to be long and full risks and challenges. Do you think that half a century of armed conflict is nearing its end?
BG: I think it would be premature to talk about the conflict nearing its end. I believe that this was a most-important step that crowned six months of negotiations. As President Santos said, it was the first time a preliminary joint statement of intent to continue dialogue and negotiations was signed. Indeed, both sides – the government and the guerrilla forces – are still in conflict. This is beyond any doubt.
The reason I say the Colombian president is a brave man is that he took up the task of finding a solution to this conflict while maintaining his struggle against militants, initiated negotiations that, if successful, will ensure progress towards ending the conflict. This is indeed very risky and challenging but, as the president of his country, he had to take it up. This initiative, which requires the highest degree of responsibility, demonstrates his courage, commitment to achieving peace and a principled stand against using it for political purposes. This is a long way, but the roadmap has been drawn and the objectives are set clear. The president made it very clear: in case these objectives cannot be achieved, the rule-of-law state shall continue despite the presence of illegal guerilla forces.
RT: Right, but what foundation does this process need to succeed?
BG: What is already in place is a strong political will; also stages of the process have been defined, as well as the tools of maintaining dialogue to achieve rapprochement which cover political, economic and social areas, as well as agriculture and certainly the issues pertaining to the victims of the conflict. It is for the first time that an agreement of this kind has been achieved that addresses the issue of the victims’ rights. They’ll need to define the framework, milestones and goals and to move in stages as planned.
RT: Is perhaps anyone missing from the dialogue? Both the government and FARC are there, should anyone else be?
BG: I believe that the parties involved in the process are exactly the parties that need to be there. At the very least, these are the parties that have been defined. The president made a public statement that other parties may join the dialogue as the process evolves. Not all of them need to be engaged from the very beginning, but the public and victims need to follow what is prescribed by law, and there can be a time for them to step in, too.
RT: I’d like to ask you about your new career pursuits. If you could return to the National Court, where I believe what you achieved and introduced there is still in place, and given all those things that you wanted to do – so if you could return, would you? Or perhaps you’re quite happy with what you’re doing now?
BG: I am happy with what I’m doing now, I can’t complain about it, I’m doing what I love doing, and this alone means a lot these days. But this does not mean that I am waiving my legal rights – and my legal rights are defined by my qualifications as a judge and a magistrate.
I shall pursue my right for the compensation for what I believe to be a wrongful verdict of the Supreme Court, and I shall submit all relevant appeals. When I obtain my compensation, my acquittal, my reinstatement, I shall have time to think it over whether I would want to return. In any case, life goes on and, as one Greek philosopher put it centuries ago, you cannot step into the same river twice.
RT: Thank you very much, Mr. Garzon.