An Open Letter to J.K. Rowling about the Cruel Treatment of Julian Assange by the UK

Photo by Ye Jinghan on Unsplash

Dear J.K. Rowling,

I have written fan letters to you on a couple of occasions, first privately and later at a gathering of the Daily Potter club in Bulgaria. This time, it is different. I turn to you not just because you are our “Jo,” but because you are a doctor’s wife as well as a person who has encountered torture and medical neglect during your work at Amnesty International and more recently with the charity you founded, Lumos, which helps children in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. Yet I still address, first and foremost, the author of Harry Potter: a series of books that defined the childhood of many (and my own youth) and at whose heart lies a strong humanitarian message that champions kindness and condemns the use of torture and intimidation.

I was appalled by the treatment of Julian Assange, a journalist of international significance who is imprisoned in your country, and I hope that a public or private intervention on your part could help save his life and restore his liberty and health. In order to understand more, I kindly ask you to read the letters written by Doctors for Assange, such as the one published in The Lancet on 17 February 2020. Doctors for Assange is an independent collective of nearly 200 medical doctors from 30 countries (to date) who have made very strong pleas, based on publicly available information and eyewitness accounts, for the shocking state-sponsored abuse of this man to cease immediately.

The mistreatment is dangerous to the point of being life-threatening. Both the physical and mental condition of Julian Assange have deteriorated as a result of potentially criminal action and inaction. The world’s designated authority on torture, UN Special Rapporteur Nils Melzer, examined Julian Assange in Belmarsh prison on 9 May 2019 with two medical experts. Professor Melzer’s team followed the Istanbul Protocol, and each member of the team independently reached the conclusion that Assange was exhibiting all the symptoms of a victim of prolonged psychological torture. On 1 November 2019 Melzer warned that he now feared for Assange’s life because the arbitrariness and the abuse had not stopped. On 28 February 2020 he presented a report on psychological torture¹ to the UN Human Rights Council where he highlights the fact that victims whose tormentors employ psychological rather than physical methods suffer no less than those whose bodies are violated. Indeed, he argues, there is no clear demarcation between the two methods, as destabilising someone’s personality impairs their physical health (and carries the risk of death), while targeting the body clearly has mental consequences as well.

In the world of witches and wizards, as in Muggle law, the prohibition of torture is absolute. Psychological torture may be said to be a combination of two of the three “Unforgivable Curses”: “Imperius,” which enslaves the mind of the victim, and “Cruciatus,” which causes intense physical pain. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the reader learns that the Imperius curse is about “total control… I could make [the spider] jump out of the window, drown itself, throw itself down one of your throats,” while the Cruciatus curse inflicts “pain… You don’t need thumbscrews or knives to torture someone if you can perform the Cruciatus curse” (recalling physical “no marks” torture in our world). Assange is in a state of severe mental pain and could very well be led by his captors to take his own life, as eminent forensic psychiatrists in Australia and Britain have warned and as Assange himself reportedly told his lawyer.

The symptoms of torture are directly traceable to events that unfolded in plain view of the entire world: Assange’s arbitrary detention (as ruled by a UN Working Group) at the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he was denied both privacy and access to proper health care, followed by his incarceration at Belmarsh maximum security prison, first for the minor offence of skipping bail when he sought asylum and then merely at the behest of the US government for publishing documents that incriminated or embarrassed it. Over the last two years, notably, he has experienced the Muggle version of Azkaban. In Azkaban, convicts are guarded by soul-sucking Dementors, the inspiration for which you have said came from your own battle with clinical depression. Australian officials may call it “standard,” but even Assange’s fellow inmates were angered at his extreme isolation, petitioned on his behalf and improved his situation just a little.

Assange’s treatment by prison authorities and District Judge Vanessa Baraitser during the first part of his extradition hearing in February was arguably even worse than Harry’s trial in Order of the Phoenix, which was orchestrated by the cruel bureaucrat Dolores Umbridge. At least when Harry, accused of no violent crime, sat in the chain-covered chair, the chains made a threatening clinking sound but did not bind him; Assange, who has not been accused of a violent crime either, has to sit in a bulletproof glass box in the back of the court: an “antiterrorist” court that seems unfit for trying even Death Eaters, let alone a publisher whose weapons are cryptography and the written and spoken word. Rebecca Vincent from Reporters Without Borders called this treatment “dehumanising.” The lack of confidential access to his lawyers, the total loss of control, and, in the words of Craig Murray, “the systematic denial of any basic human comfort, like the touch of a friend’s fingertips” point to a gross human rights abuse in these historic extradition proceedings. As Professor Dumbledore told Minister for Magic Cornelius Fudge at Harry’s disciplinary hearing, “In your admirable haste to ensure that the law is upheld, you appear, inadvertently I am sure, to have overlooked a few laws yourself.”

The medical doctors are regrettably being ignored; so far only the Australian government has sent a reply following the publication of the Lancet letter. The UK government has not responded at all. Likewise, it has not responded to the Special Rapporteur’s detailed reports, except to flatly deny any responsibility for torture. Even the BBC has refused to give any real publicity to Melzer despite the gravity of his allegations and the potential risk for Britain’s reputation as a country where the rule of law is upheld and torture is not practised. “Given that I came out with very serious accusations against the British authorities,” he said, “there is no reason, no excuse for the UK media not to cover it. Because if I am wrong, I need to be exposed. But if I am right, then the UK government needs to be exposed.”

Multiple human rights bodies and NGOs have called for Assange to be immediately released and for the US charges to be dropped — e.g., Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute recently compared the treatment of Assange to the Abu Ghraib scandal. Moreover, in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and the risk to vulnerable, chronically ill people, it has become more urgent than ever that Assange be permitted to walk free or at least bailed out before the coronavirus hits Belmarsh. In fact, the British legal charity Prisoners’ Advice Service has called for the release of several categories of prisoners, among them people awaiting extradition.² (Even the Iranian regime has temporarily freed tens of thousands of inmates.) There is little hope that the government will do anything without intense public pressure, however. It pains me as an Eastern European to witness the UK devolve into a rogue state. The UK must be reminded that true leadership and real strength come from fairness and accountability.

I am aware of certain political hostilities that have existed between you and the WikiLeaks organisation or its supporters. I would also like to ask you to consider the possibility that, in the manner of a clever author, powerful politicians and media can sometimes employ real-world “narrative misdirection” to destroy an individual. Above all, however, I hope that you will see this as a matter of basic human rights and, where those in positions of power have failed, you will condemn Julian Assange’s ongoing torture and medical neglect in the strongest possible terms. He should be set free and allowed to heal and spend time with his children.

Thank you for your attention, and stay safe.

[1]: Scroll down to A/HRC/43/49.

[2]: See also this thread by APPEAL and the relevant Assange petition.

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I have a background in biology and animal welfare, a once-in-a-while impetus to write, and a day job which gives my mind time to wander away.

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Alina Lilova

Alina Lilova

I have a background in biology and animal welfare, a once-in-a-while impetus to write, and a day job which gives my mind time to wander away.

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