PEN Norway awards Julian Assange the Ossietzky Prize for 2023

On a warm summer day in June, as life thrives in the vibrant city of London, something quite dramatic happened at the Ecuadorian embassy. It was 2012. A tall, mysterious man appeared, rang the bell, and confidently walked into the Ecuadorian embassy. It was none other than Julian Assange. The man who shocked the Western world by leaking damming information no one would have known had he not leaked it. The information Assange was leaking generated a new debate and raised many questions in the West. Is Assange a fearless journalist, a daring activist, or perhaps an agent of hostile agencies?

One thing was undeniable – Julian Assange and his brainchild, WikiLeaks, were behind some of the most stomach-churning leaks of the 21st century. In 2010, WikiLeaks published a series of classified documents about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, revealing US war crimes. The release featured a notorious video depicting two Apache US military helicopters targeting a group in Iraq in 2007, killing over 23 people, including two Reuters journalists.

These leaks severely upset the United States. The US government accused Assange of being a pawn in Russia’s attempt to meddle in the US elections. Meanwhile, U.S-based investigative reporters engaging in similar activities as Assange were receiving the most prestigious awards in media. This raised many questions and highlighted a glaring double standard within the US.

However, days earlier, Assange had faced a legal setback in his battle against extradition to Sweden, where he was accused of rape by two women. Now, here’s where it gets interesting. The president of Ecuador at the time, Rafael Correa, who was known for his left-leaning views, decided to grant Assange’s request for political asylum. This decision didn’t sit well with the British government and sparked a major diplomatic clash. It was like a high-stakes chess game unfolding in real life.

As tensions escalated, the situation took an uglier turn. The Ecuadorian embassy turned into a police headquarters, surrounded by a battalion of Metropolitan police officers. They were on high alert, ready to drag and arrest Assange if he dared to step outside. But he did not for seven years.

After spending nearly seven years in the Ecuadorian embassy, the South American country revoked his asylum status. Finally, the Wikileaks co-founder was arrested by Scotland Yard. Since then, Assange has been held in solitary confinement, placed under suicide watch, and incarcerated in one of the most heavily guarded prisons, Belmarsh, in the southeast of London. In May 2019, a UN special rapporteur said that Assange was subjected to psychological torture.

Assange has been resisting an extradition request from the United States, where he is charged with 18 counts, including conspiracy to hack government computers and violating an espionage law. If convicted, he could face a sentence of up to 175 years in prison.

Inhuman Treatment and Surveillance of Award-Winning Journalist

Fifteen years after the troubles began, from his time in the embassy in 2012 to his arrest in 2019, Assange was nominated for the Ossietzky Award by PEN Norway in 2023. His wife, Stella Assange, traveled to the Norwegian capital, Oslo, on November 15 to accept the award. During her visit, she contemplated on the wreckage of her life, discussing the intense surveillance her family had endured and the treatment Assange had faced in jail.

She shared the harrowing experiences that her husband, children, and herself had undergone over the years. Revealing a disturbing turn of events, a private security firm had covertly supplied the CIA with information collected from the Assange family. “The CIA even went to the extent of collecting the diapers of my infant for a DNA test,” she disclosed, showing the disturbing and distressing nature of the surveillance her family faced at the hands of the CIA.

Endless Miseries

The miseries for Assange don’t end there. At Belmarsh, he faces some of the harshest conditions imaginable. “Assange is held in inhuman conditions in a three-by-two prison cell,” Stella told a group of Norwegian audience on November 15.

“Recently, he had a discussion with Belmarsh jail management about the number of books he can keep. The jail management told Assange he couldn’t keep many due to the small prison cell size. Assange chose books over his bed, now opting to sleep on a yoga mat to make room for his friends – the books.”

For the past five years, Assange has been held in the high-security prison Belmarsh, facing restricted contact with family and limited communication with his lawyers. His health has deteriorated significantly during this time.

During the award ceremony, the President of PEN Norway, Ann-Magrit Austenå, said that the treatment Julian Assange has been subjected to constitutes violations of the European Convention on Human Rights and the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibit torture and inhuman treatment.

“Without the leaked documents published by Julian Assange, we would not have had this insight,” she said.

“If Julian Assange is extradited to the United States, the very core of press freedom is under attack and could mark a significant historical setback for independent, critical journalism.”

The Hypocrisy of the West

The inhuman treatment of Assange and the silence of Western democratic governments have ignited widespread anger globally, including in Norway. Retired Professor Rune Ottosen of Oslo Met, who has actively campaigned for Assange’s freedom and has been traveling to London and attending Assange’s trial, is quite unhappy with the treatment being meted out to Assange.

“Assange, an award-winning journalist, is being treated like a terrorist. During the trial, he is caged behind thick glass, like a terrorist. He is denied access to evidence in his extradition case. His treatment violates the European Human Rights Convention, and he has been deprived of fundamental rights, such as confidential communication with his lawyers. ,” he says.

Ottosen is also disappointed with the Western governments’ dual approach in addressing Assange’s case compared to their treatment of journalists from Russia or Turkey.

“The West passionately addresses the mistreatment of journalists in Turkey or Russia; the same strong spirit is notably absent in Assange’s case. This reveals the double standards of Western democracies.”

Like other Western governments, the Norwegian government, a strong ally of the US and an advocate for freedom of speech, has abstained from publicly commenting on Assange despite active coverage by the Norwegian media and advocacy organizations highlighting the inhuman treatment inflicted upon him. Although the Norwegian National Commission for UNESCO raised Assange’s issue with Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, MFA’s response was vague.

“The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, despite having a strategy to promote freedom of expression and safeguard journalists in foreign and development policy, responded weakly and disappointingly when UNESCO raised Assange’s issue,” said Professor Ottosen.

For many European advocacy organizations, including Norwegian, it is shocking that an Australian citizen, an award-winning journalist, is detained in the heart of Europe for informing the public about US war crimes.

Different reports suggest the CIA plotted to kidnap Assange from Ecuador’s embassy in London and spied on his family for years. The ongoing mistreatment also reveals the risks and challenges for whistleblowers in the West who dare to embarrass powerful states by exposing their war crimes.

“Julian’s case will determine whether the West becomes a new prison for writers, journalists, and whistleblowers or not,” said his wife, Stella Assange.

Why the Ossietzky Prize for Julian Assange?

PEN Norway awarded Julian Assange with the Ossietzky prize for revealing severe war crimes committed by the United States and its allies in Afghanistan and Iraq and the unlawful imprisonment and abuse of detainees at Guantanamo.

PEN Norway believes Julian Assange’s published classified documents in 2010 contributed to important debates about the legitimacy and lawfulness of US military actions, Norway’s most important ally. The information provided a more accurate picture of the brutality and abuse of power, as well as gross violations of the laws of war by the United States.

Parallels between Ossietzky and Julian Assange

Professor Ottosen also sees many parallels between Ossietzky and Julian Assange. Ottosen says Ossietzky knew the risks– still, he published investigative stories detailing Germany’s violation of the Treaty of Versailles and rights abuses by German armed forces. Despite the dangers, he revealed that German authorities secretly engaged in rearmament contrary to the Treaty. Similarly, Assange, too, knew the risks but exposed American war crimes through his investigative stories and Wikileaks.

“Ossietzky was accused of treason and espionage and subsequently incarcerated. Likewise, Assange is charged under the Espionage Act and is detained,” said Rune Ottosen.

“Assange, like Ossietzky, has been mistreated and subjected to psychological torture in prison. The journalist, who symbolized opposition to the Nazi regime, faced similar treatment. He deserves the prize because he knowingly took the risk by revealing the US war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. And torture at Guantanamo. He has said multiple times there are consequences for embarrassing the superpowers. Ossietzky did the same thing. This courageous step underlines the need to protect free speech globally.”