Protest in solidarity with Julian Assange outside the walls of Belmarsh Prison

A Visit to Belmarsh Prison, Where Julian Assange Awaits His Final Appeal Against Extradition to the US

HMP Belmarsh. It is 2:30 pm on Wednesday, December 13, when Julian Assange strides into the visitors’ area. He stands out in the column of 23 prisoners for his height — 6′ 2″ — and flowing white locks with trimmed beard. He squints, looking for a familiar face among the wives, sisters, sons, and fathers of the other inmates. I am waiting, as assigned, at D-3, one of about 40 sets of small coffee tables surrounded by three upholstered chairs — two blue, one red — screwed into the floor of what looks like a basketball court. We spot each other, walk forward, and embrace. It is the first time I have seen him in six years. I blurt, “You’re pale.” Through a mischievous smile I remember from past meetings, he jokes, “They call it prison pale.”

He has not been outdoors — apart from a minute when police dragged him into a paddy wagon — since he took refuge in London’s cramped Ecuadorian Embassy in June 2012. The embassy’s French windows had afforded glimpses of sky. Here at Belmarsh maximum security prison in southeast London, his abode since April 11, 2019, he has not seen the sun. Warders confine him to a cell for 23 out of every 24 hours. His single hour of recreation takes place within four walls, under supervision. His paleness is best described as deathly.

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Activists supporting Julian Assange in London's Piccadilly Circus with banners declaring 'Free Assange' and '2023 - Time to Set Him Free!'

Behind closed doors: A fresh look at Julian Assange and WikiLeaks

In December 2018, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, received an email from a group of lawyers headed “Julian Assange is seeking your protection”. Melzer, a Swiss international lawyer, asked himself: “Was this not the founder of WikiLeaks, the shady hacker with the white hair and the leather jacket who was hiding out in an embassy somewhere because of rape allegations?” As he recalls,

I was overtaken by a host of disparaging thoughts and almost reflexive feelings of rejection. Assange? No, I certainly would not be manipulated by this guy.

Three months later, Assange’s legal team contacted him again. Ecuador intended to expel Assange from its embassy in London, where he had taken refuge in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden and from there to the US. “A question started forming in my mind”, Melzer writes in The Trial of Julian Assange: A story of persecution. “Had I overlooked something when I dismissed this case the last time around?” Thus began a two-year investigation that uncovered the lengths to which the US – and the UK, Sweden and Ecuador – went to silence and punish Assange. Melzer changed his mind. This book should change others’.

The story begins in 2006, when Assange, together with fellow tech prodigies and free-speech advocates, founded WikiLeaks as a safe depository for inside sources to reveal wrongdoing without fear of retribution. Encryption prevented governments and corporations, not to mention WikiLeaks itself, from detecting the identities of whistleblowers, thereby protecting them from prosecutions of the kind that tormented many who had confided in traditional media, among them the Foreign and Commonwealth Office official Sarah Tisdall, who was jailed in 1984 for leaking British government documents to the Guardian, and the GCHQ translator Katharine Gun, who in 2003 was charged under the Official Secrets Act for leaking top-secret information to the Observer. A year into its existence, WikiLeaks published the US army’s protocols for detainee treatment at Camp Delta in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, including the denial of access to Red Cross delegates. It also released documents related to the ruling Moi family’s corruption in Kenya. In 2008 came the Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s emails, then in 2009 intercepts of government pager messages about the attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001. It was a measure of the trust sources placed in WikiLeaks that so many were…

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Village of Ehden, North of Lebanon by Paul Saad

Letter from Mount Lebanon

Peace is precarious in Lebanon, where everyone remembers the toll of previous conflicts and fears the spread of war.

Ehden is an ancient village on the northern heights of Mount Lebanon. Perched above the Qadisha (Sacred) Valley, it has long been a redoubt of the Maronite sect, an Eastern rite of Roman Catholicism whose adherents built their first church, Saint Mamas, here in 749 AD. Some Maronites like to claim descent from the Phoenicians, although their fourth-century founder, Saint Maroun, was born in northern Syria and never set foot in Lebanon. The people of Ehden and Zgharta, its sister village in the foothills nearer the sea, spoke Aramaic into the nineteenth century. Even today their Arabic is pronounced with a distinctive Aramaic accent. Most Lebanese, including urban Maronites, regard them as hillbillies whose feuds would embarrass the Hatfields and McCoys. Five families—Frangieh, Moawad, Doueihy, Karam, and Makary—have vied for dominance over the centuries. The Frangiehs have been primus inter pares since one of them, Suleiman Frangieh, became president of Lebanon in 1970.

My Makary grandmother raised me on mountain folktales. In one, her father is killed defending the village from an Ottoman raid about 1890, a few months before she was born. Other relatives told me he died in a feud among the families. Although her mother married again and took her to the New World, she never lost touch with her native land. Her Arabic—like her cooking—marked her as a born-and-bred Zghartawi.

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Newspaper reports William N. Oatis missing

The US Condemned Stalin’s Prosecution of Journalists. Now It Uses His Playbook.

The prosecution of Julian Assange in 2023 mirrors the prosecution of journalist Bill Oatis during the Cold War.

Two of my colleagues — Evan Gershkovich in Moscow and Julian Assange in London — languish in prisons for doing their job: keeping you informed. Russia and the U.S., knowingly or not, are following Joseph Stalin’s press playbook. A case in point: the Stalinist persecution of U.S. journalist William (Bill) Nathan Oatis in Cold War Czechoslovakia, which mirrors the contemporary prosecutions of my colleagues.

To Bill Oatis, as to Assange and Gershkovich, journalism was less a job than a vocation. He worked on school newspapers from the age of 12 and dropped out of college in 1933 to take a job at his hometown newspaper, the Marion, Indiana, Leader-Tribune. From there, he moved to the Associated Press (AP) bureau in the state capital, Indianapolis. (His managing editor, Drysdale Brannon, recalled, “He was a factual reporter and probably the most conscientious man who ever worked on the staff.”) Diverted from journalism to the Army for three years during World War II, he returned to the AP, first to its New York news desk, then to London and in 1950 to Prague, Czechoslovakia, as bureau chief.

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The Great War, Library of Congress

Revisiting the Mental Health Fallout from the Unprecedented Horror of the First World War

All the armies in the Great War had a word for it: the Germans called it “Kriegsneurose”; the French “la confusion mentale de la guerre”; the British “neurasthenia” and, when Dr. Charles Samuel Myers introduced the soldiers’ slang into medical discourse in 1915, “shell shock.” Twenty-five years later, it was “battle fatigue.” By the end of the twentieth century, it became post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In December 1914, a mere five months into “the war to end war,” Britain’s armed forces lost 10 percent of all frontline officers and 4 percent of enlisted men, the “other ranks,” to “nervous and mental shock.” An editorial that month in the British medical journal The Lancet lamented “the frequency with which hysteria, traumatic and otherwise, is showing itself.”

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"The 2000 Yard Stare", by Thomas Lea, 1944, WWII. The Army Art Collection, U.S. Army Center for Military History

From “Shell Shock” to PTSD, Veterans Have a Long Walk to Health

Will Robinson, an American Iraq war veteran, languished for months with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) all alone at home in Louisiana. One day in March 2016, he watched the movie “Wild,” starring Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed. Strayed’s book of the same title told of her redemption from despair by hiking 2,650 miles of wilderness on the Pacific Coast Trail, from Mexico to Canada. Robinson decided to follow Strayed’s example, packing up a tent and supplies a month later to duplicate her journey and, he hoped, its hopeful outcome.

He had nothing to lose. Forced into the army at the age of eighteen by a judge who promised to erase his conviction for petty theft if he served, he was deployed to South Korea in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Six months in Iraq left him with injuries to his wrist, his knee and, more significantly, his mind. The army gave him a medical discharge for PTSD, but it offered little in the way of medical treatment. He attempted suicide with drugs the Veterans Administration issued him, surviving only because the pills made him vomit. Other vets of the war on terror were not so lucky; every day, an average of twenty-two take their lives rather than endure another moment of living hell. Robinson promised his mother he would not try again. Then she died, and he retreated into loneliness and depression.

It was during that dark time that Robinson saw “Wild” and took his first, literal, step towards recovery. He may not have known that he was following the advice of a British psychiatrist, Dr. Arthur J. Brock, who had prescribed similar solutions to soldiers traumatized in the First World War. The battles between 1914 and 1918 subjected young men to the unprecedented terrors of high explosive artillery shells, poison gas, flamethrowers, rapid machine-gun fire and claustrophobia in rat-infested trenches. Growing numbers of casualties carried to field hospitals had no physical wounds. At least, not wounds the doctors could see.

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Soldiers Dont Go Mad

Poet by Day, Sick by Night

Every summer before the war, Siegfried Sassoon had gloried in playing cricket. Yet, at Craiglockhart, he shunned team sports and clubs. His only athletic pursuits were golf and leaping alone “like a young ram” over the Pentland ridges. At the end of his first week, he wrote to Ottoline Morrell, “My fellow-patients are 160 more or less dotty officers. A great many of them are degenerate looking.” One had committed suicide. Estranged from the other inmates, Sassoon cherished his time with [Dr. William Halse Rivers] Rivers, “a sensible man who doesn’t say anything silly.” Rivers assured him he was sane, albeit with one abnormality: opposition to the war. Yet, Sassoon wrote to Ottoline, the doctor’s pro-war arguments “don’t make any impression on me.”

He used the evening sessions with Rivers “to give my anti-war complex an airing.” Doctor and patient debated the war’s rights and wrongs, neither making headway with the other. Among discussion topics were European politicians’ declarations as translated in The Cambridge Magazine. Sassoon maintained the statesmen, far from waging defensive war, sought to annex territory from Germany and its allies. France wanted Alsace and the portions of Lorraine that Germany had seized in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. The Kingdom of Italy had joined the war in April 1915 to acquire chunks of Austria-Hungary. Britain coveted German colonies in Africa. The May 1916 Sykes-Picot accord dividing the Ottoman Empire among France, Britain, and Russia would have bolstered Sassoon’s case had it not been an official secret. Rivers argued that Germany would not negotiate. Its military and political leaders were as determined as Britain’s to fight until victory, despite the stasis of the trenches, the daily death toll, and the calamitous offensives. Like the belligerent nations, Rivers and Sassoon stuck to their positions without breakthrough or compromise.

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Confronting Saddam Hussein by Melvyn P. Leffler review

An apologist seeks to justify an ‘abomination of a war’

In 1899 President William McKinley explained to a delegation of Methodist clergymen why he had decided to occupy the Philippine Islands. Conscience prevented him from returning the archipelago to Spain following the Spanish–American war, turning it over to another colonial power or granting the Filipinos independence, because “they were unfit for self-government”. A long night of prayer had convinced him “that there was nothing for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them”. The churchmen accepted McKinley’s rationale. The Filipinos, about 90 per cent of whom were Christian already, did not. Nor did Mark Twain, who condemned the military onslaught that would go on to kill 20,000 rebels and up to 200,000 civilians. History has judged McKinley harshly, despite the domestic popularity that won him a second election to the White House in 1900.

Like McKinley, George W. Bush professed a moral imperative for invading and occupying Iraq in 2003. He too won re-election. Yet by the time he left office he was a laughing stock. Even his most ardent cheerleaders had distanced themselves from a military adventure that was nothing short of disastrous for Iraq, the US military and America’s global reputation. A rare exception is Melvyn P. Leffler, whose Confronting Saddam Hussein exonerates Bush and goes so far as to praise his “energy, discipline, self-confidence and good humor”. Can this be the same president who gave his name to the word “Bushism”, which the New Oxford American Dictionary defines as “a verbal error made by and considered characteristic of former US president George W. Bush”, eg “They misunderestimated me” or, on the Taliban, “They have no disregard for human life”?

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Damascus Qanawat market street byDosseman, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Disenchantment and Devastation in Syria

For the first time in sixteen years Damascus has inaugurated a new five-star luxury hotel. The Golden Mazzeh is a ten-story reminder that some Syrians are surviving America’s economic sanctions better than others. Its 111 suites and rooms, ten restaurants and bars, two outdoor swimming pools, ballroom, meeting rooms, theater, gym, and conference center make it a formidable competitor to the older Sheraton and Four Seasons. Guests can sip martinis in its two rooftop bars while contemplating a 360-degree panorama of the sprawling Syrian capital: suburban apartment complexes and parks to the west, Mount Qasioun to the north, and to the east the ancient walled city where Saint Paul eluded his persecutors and which tradition says the Prophet Muhammad bypassed in the belief that man could enter paradise only once. An Italian architect, Massimo Rodighiero, designed the hotel, whose manager, Patrick Prudhomme, is French. In the eucalyptus-shaded public garden across from the entrance, mothers watch their children as traffic rumbles along the nearby Mazzeh Highway toward Beirut.

This is the road that first delivered me to Damascus at Easter 1973, before high-rise government offices, embassies, and apartments for a new class of military officers, civil servants, and merchants absorbed semirural, suburban Mazzeh into the metropolis. I was a tourist then, an ignorant American graduate student on his way by land from Lebanon to Aqaba in Jordan, pausing long enough for lunch and a little sightseeing. When I returned the following October to cover the war with Israel, it was as a journalist on a visa approved by the Ministry of Information’s obstructive, sluggish bureaucracy. Since then I’ve had to apply to the ministry whenever I sought to return.

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Beirut city by Yoniw

Diary: In Beirut

‘I found it dirty and coarse,’ the Lebanese scholar Edward Atiyah wrote of Beirut at the end of the First World War. ‘Rubbish heaps stank in the streets; the gutters looked as though they hadn’t been cleaned since my childhood … Dead rats!’ Nearly a century later, in 2004, the journalist Hazim Saghie would say of Beirut in the 1980s: ‘I only recall darkness … the roar of electricity generators … while the garbage was mounting everywhere, spreading its putrid smell day after day after day.’

Both Atiyah and Saghie were remembering a dark past at a moment when prospects looked brighter. Atiyah was writing in 1946, as the French army was departing from newly independent Lebanon; Saghie in the early 2000s when Beirut was being rebuilt after fifteen years of civil war. Both imagined the worst was over, when it wasn’t, when it wasn’t likely to be. Now, in 2023, the rubbish is back and has been for several years. Political stasis and corruption have consigned Beirut to another dark age. A future in which any Lebanese can reflect on bad memories from a time of safety seems unimaginable.

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