Julian Assange’s Franco-Spanish lawyer Juan Branco, visited Athens for a couple of days, bringing news from the south-east of London where Assange, the activist and journalist that provided an unprecedented insight into the mechanisms of power is held, in high-security Belmarsh prison.
“Wikileaks is a tiny boat sailing in the ocean of state secrets, beset on all sides by enormous ocean liners, which have the sole intention of sinking it”: these were the words Juan Branco chose to describe Wikileaks in the half-empty press conference room in the Journalists’ Union of Athens Daily Newspapers offices.
As incompatible as it may seem for a man of law, this somehow poetic introduction was, in essence, most matching with “utopian” Wikileaks activism and “beyond realistic calculations” Branco’s curriculum. For Branco, after obtaining a Ph.D. from Yale and after working for the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court and as an advisor to the French Minister of Foreign Affairs Laurent Fabius, decided to end up in “the other side of history”, joining Wikileaks legal team.
And here he was now, in Athens, calling the Greek citizens to rise up and the Greek government to provide asylum for Assange. He has on his side “Quartier Général” journalist Maxime Nicholle, a leading figure of the Yellow Vests Assange Solidarity Movement, which organizes group trips to support him outside British courts and Belmarsh prison. Nicholle flared the fire with his presentation on the movement that has shaken France.
Undoubtedly highly communicative, this passionate 30-year old lawyer is already a prominent media figure in France. His photogenic face, crowned with this characteristically untamed dense dark hair does not seem, however, to have made him behave like a star. Someone who has dared reveal UN troops crimes in Bangui, Central Africa, could not really bond well under any fixed label.
We get the chance to talk when the press conference is finished. His all-black tight suit with this highly buttoned jacket accents his slim, tall figure. He seems rather distant. Julian Assange’s hearing at Westminster Magistrates Court on the 23rd of January coincided with the Athens Press Conference, and he has a work overload. Nevertheless, he would talk to me for a while.
He seems modest and smooth. His younger-than-30 looking face betrays under its expression a man under really enormous pressure — a pressure that no one can imagine. Now I can understand why he seems distant. He is physically in Athens, but it is as if his whole existence is actually somewhere in London, next to Julian Assange. He often gazes at an unspecified space and you can tell his mind is engaged in something much larger than this room could possibly encompass.
“I never try to influence Julian; I respect his free will”
He has no news about the hearing yet, he tells me. I ask him about the revelations regarding the private Spanish firm UC Global, contracted by the Ecuadorian embassy in London to manage security; the firm was discovered to be spying on Assange, who was living there under asylum for seven years until his arrest in 2019. Branco had tweeted a video of himself in a confidential discussion with Assange in the embassy, apparently taken by the company. Spying was allegedly on behalf of the CIA, as three protected witnesses had recently told a judge in Spain.
“We’ll use it in the hearing of the 24th”, he tells me, referring to the main extradition hearing opening in February. “We’ll use all this evidence to show that defense rights have been broken, that he should be freed, because of this only argument, it’s sufficient. So we are expecting to use them, starting on the 24th of February”.
One would think that allegedly criminal acts occurring outside the US could not be subject to prosecution inside the United States. Nevertheless, as experts argue, extraterritorial jurisdiction is increasingly used by the US to prosecute both US citizens living and working abroad, as well as foreign nationals who have no connection to the United States.
Hence, Assange is been charged in the US with 17 counts of spying and one count of computer hacking in relation to Wikileaks release of thousands of classified Pentagon files regarding the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, most of which were allegedly provided by former US army intelligence analyst Chelsey Manning.
Very importantly, however, most extradition treaties exclude political offenses. The latter term appears to cover crimes as treason, espionage, and sedition. This is why Branco stated in the press conference that the extradition request has no legal ground since the relevant US-UK treaty does not allow extradition for political offenses.
Despite the fact that Assange faces up to 175 years in prison if the US manages to lay its hands on him and convict him, his lawyers have repeatedly complained that UK prison authorities are restricting his access to legal counsel required for his preparation for the extradition trial. Is this changing?
“No, it’s not changing”, Branco replies. “English lawyers have almost no time with him and international lawyers have no time with him, basically. So it’s a strategy from the UK to undermine his defense and have him out of the country as soon as possible, in order to forget about this issue which has cost them a lot of media [attention] and pressure and discomfort. We are victims of this strategy. Julian is in a situation that is not acceptable from the defense perspective and we will raise this argument also, but we are also conscious it will not be received. Gareth Pierce is the leading advocate in the UK regarding this issue and she is a very well respected lawyer in the UK, so she is trying to use very carefully this symbolic capital she has in order to help Julian, but she seems pressured that she hasn’t seen him…”
Julian Assange may not be an “ideal” client for a lawyer, in the sense, he is not into being “diplomatic” to appease powerful people in key-positions and ingratiate himself. For example, while he was in the Ecuadorian embassy, Wikileaks released Vault 7 documents, detailing CIA hacking techniques. This was after Trump had applauded Wikileaks for its role in disseminating the contents of internal communications stolen from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign; but it was also after Trump was elected president. When Assange was arrested, President Trump in a U-turn was stating: “I know nothing about Wikileaks”.
Has Assange’s legal team, and Branco in particular, ever tried to “speak more sense” to their client?
“I never try to influence him in any way”, Branco says. “When he asked for advice, I gave him, but I was considering that he knew what he was doing with his destiny”, he continues — and one might think he is perhaps taking some distance from Assange’s choices. “He is one of the most intelligent people I have ever met. So, he needs information, but he is the only one who takes his decisions — and when you meet someone like that, you respect his free will. If it got him where he was, it must be for a reason. We try to learn from him and of course, we try to inform his choices the best way you can”.
“Assange is treated like all dissidents”
In the “Book of Laughter and Forgetting”, author Milan Kundera is describing how the communist leadership in his country of origin, Czechoslovakia, had been erasing people from history and from pictures, trying to throw into oblivion what seemed “uncomfortable”. “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”, Kundera, whose Czech citizenship was restored only in December 2019 after 40 years, famously wrote.
This novel echoes in my mind while following Julian Assange’s case and observing how it has been gradually “buried” by the media. The comparison is eerie. Could it be some orchestrated effort to “erase” this persistent Australian from history?
The meager journalistic representation in the press conference room in Athens (where mainly alternative media were represented, only five newspapers, no radio, and no TV channel) was only indicative of the mainstream media stance towards the imprisoned Wikileaks publisher.
When I asked Branco at the Press Conference how he would explain this stance, he replied he wrote his latest (seventh) book “Assange: L’Anti Souverain” in an attempt to answer this question. Apart from “structural reasons that push mainstream media to a state of dependence from the mechanisms of power”, he said, there are “different approaches to journalism” and “definitely a competition” between Wikileaks and these media. Assange has laid the theoretical foundation for “scientific journalism”, which is “very different from journalism as we know it” and can be considered “violent by part of the institutions exposed by this journalism”, Branco claimed.
However, he appeared optimistic that mainstream media will change their stance, handle the issue in a fair manner and expose its political underpinnings — and added how important support from journalists, institutions and citizens is in this case.
Given Branco’s knowledge in law history, the question is if he has ever come across any other case where a defendant has been vilified as much as Julian Assange.
“I think it’s a classical proceeding regarding dissidents”, Branco states. “In dictatorships, I guess”, I comment. “Under any kind of regime”, he replies. “We do not perceive it necessarily and we do not perceive how close we are from autocratic regimes in Western Europe. We have divinized for decades our regimes and we are starting to realize in the last years that [they] are actually much less efficient than we thought and actually very problematic in some dimensions, as soon as you would touch important interests”.
He pauses for seconds.
“So, in a sense, we are lucky that Julian has survived all these, but it’s a price he should have never paid”.
“He reveals the nature of our regimes, Julian Assange’s case — and I think that’s why it is so important”, Branco goes on, essentially describing Assange as a contemporary Machiavelli in the sense he provided insight to the mechanisms of power for the people. “It is not only his individual fate but what he says about the nature of the societies in which we are. I hope it helps people realize that we are far more distant from liberty than what they thought”.
“My first impression of Assange was surprisingly different than what I had read about him”
During our conversation, my impression that Branco is under immense pressure has not disappeared for a second. How does it feel to work for Julian Assange?
“It depends on the period”, Branco replies. “It can be extremely isolated and violent; it can be also very exciting; because you receive a lot of pressure from powerful people, but also important gratitude from those citizens that understand that you are working to improve… Yeah, I think violence is the term that should be used for these proceedings; Violence for Julian and violence for the people surrounding him, who have paid a high price for what they do”.
Violence for Assange is currently “translated” to psychological torture. “There is a force sufficient to destroy him”, Branco says. “He is under psychological torture as Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has stated. The conditions of his detention are sufficient to destroy a man. He doesn’t need to be drugged or anything else.
”And yet he is not destroyed. And yet he is still an active man and yet he will be able to defend himself, starting the 24th of February. So, that says a lot about who he is”.
The situation under which Branco first met Assange would lavishly provide for a capturing movie scene. For the Franco-Spanish lawyer met this restless Australian while the latter was organizing the defense of Edward Snowden, the former intelligence officer who revealed the NSA and its international intelligence partners’ secret mass surveillance programs and capabilities. Branco was initially to defend Snowden, but:
“I think [Assange] felt I would be more useful with him — and he was right”, he says. “And, yeah, I was at Yale at the time, I was teaching at Yale, and it was quite some story to… Yale is the temple of the CIA, so it was kind of strange to be helping him from there”.
To verify Branco’s words, Yale has been depicted in The “New York Times” as “A Great Nursery for Spooks”, while “Yale Daily News” has quoted the then Undergraduate Career Services Director Philip Jones said: “It’s always been on the radar for Yale students that there is a career in the CIA”.
Meeting Assange for the first time. Well, this is the first impression I definitely want to hear about.
“I was very surprised by how tall he was and strong -he is much more impressive when you see him in real life- and how smooth and humble he was, which was very contradictory with what I had read about him, something that surprised me a lot”, Branco replies. “And then, again, when you think he is extremely intelligent. I wouldn’t have taken the risks I have taken for him if I hadn’t thought that. So…”
He refers to risks.
“Do you receive direct threats in the legal team?” I ask.
“Yes, of course”.
From specific sources?
“Yeah, but… One of the main lawyers of Julian killed himself… I mean, yeah, yeah, it’s difficult”.
“If we relied on ‘realistic’ calculations, we’d be bank clerks”
Just two days after this interview, Assange moved out of solitary confinement in the medical wing, where he was held almost incommunicado, into a different wing in the prison, with 40 other inmates. This happened thanks to the efforts of his legal team and petitions by inmate prisoners to the prison governor. A small, yet important step.
When it comes to the outcome of the trial he said: “We are determined. We are neither pessimistic nor optimistic. We are fighting for a cause and whatever our chances, we will not let it go. And we do not do any kind of calculus regarding the chances. What were the chances that Julian Assange would reveal hundreds of thousands of documents of the CIA, of the State Department and so forth? They were null.”
What were the chances of this Australian citizen that had no diploma to do what he did? Statistically speaking, there were none. And, yet, he did it. So, we do not rely on calculations. Otherwise, we would be working in banks or government”.
Time flies and our conversation with Juan Branco has to come to an end. Walking down-town grey, cloudy Athens afterward, I am contemplating on Branco’s last words. I am thinking the fact that Assange has till now defied all “calculations” is probably what his powerful enemies relying on such calculations should have been most afraid about him all along.
Juan Branco’s and Maxime Nicolle’s 23–24 January visit in Athens, including the press conference and an open conversation with citizens in “Jenny Karezi” theatre, was co-organized by the Paris-based Artists Group Compagnie Erinna and the Greek newspaper “Epochi”. The actress and director of Compagnie Erinna Anastasia Politi was also the two activists’ interpreter in the events.