UPDATED: Despite fears by his lawyers and doctors that Julian Assange is at high risk of being infected in prison, his judge on Wednesday denied him bail, reports Joe Lauria.
Hrafnnson Blasts Baraitser Decision;
Health Warnings on Assange Ignored;
Plea to Postpone May Hearing Resumption
By Joe Lauria
Special to Consortium News
District Judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled on Wednesday that Assange was a flight risk and couldn’t be trusted to be released. She repeated hearsay that Assange would prefer suicide to extradition and appeared to tip her hand by saying there was a “high risk of extradition.”
She told Westminster Magistrate’s Court: “I have heard evidence that Assange would consider suicide before being allowed to be extradited to the United States. There is a high risk of extradition.
“No court wishes to keep a defendant in custody, even less so during the emergency we are now experiencing,” Baraitser said. “But Mr Assange’s past conduct shows the lengths he is willing to go to escape proceedings.”
Assange was given political asylum in Ecuador’s London embassy in 2012 as he feared that extradition to Sweden would lead to extradition to the United States, a fear much maligned, but proven true as the U.S. wants Britain to send him to a court in Alexandria, VA to stand trial on 17 counts of espionage and one of computer intrusion.
“Conditions imposed on him last time did nothing to prevent him taking the steps that he did,” Baraitser said. “At the time he made the decision to enter the Ecuadorian Embassy he was subject to a European arrest warrant. He now faces serious allegations in the US.”
Dismisses Health Concerns
Baraitser dismissed concerns by Assange’s lawyers, that given previous health issues, including a lung problem, a prison was a breeding ground for infection. There have been so far no reported cases of coronavirus at Belmarsh Prison. But neither have there been reports of testing at the prison.
A 2018 British government report on prison health, which cited the Care Quality Commission in England, said UK prisons suffer from “overcrowding and lack of personal space” that raises the danger of “communicable diseases.” The report said that in a cell with three beds in Belmarsh, “there was little room to move; if all three men were standing up there was not enough space for them to pass each other without touching.”
“As matters stand today this global pandemic does not of itself yet provide grounds for Mr Assange’s release,” Baraitser said. “This is a rapidly changing environment.” .
She said: “It is the government’s responsibility to protect all prisoners and I have no reason not to rely on Public Health England to help the government do exactly that. No cases of COVID 19 having been confirmed in HMS Belmarsh.”
Doctors for Assange had warned this week of the potential danger to Assange in prison.
… it protect its medically compromised & therefore vulnerable citizen.
Medically, legally, ethically, & morally, Assange should be granted bail tomorrow.
Politically, will this be enough?
Or, will UK legal system's disproportionate treatment continue?
— Doctors for Assange (@Doctors4Assange) March 24, 2020
House Arrest Rejected
Assange lawyer Edward Fitzgerald argued in court that Assange would be unlikely to flee Britain given travel restrictions over the pandemic. Fitzgerald’s request that Assange be kept under house arrest with an ankle monitor—as he was detained during his Swedish extradition process—was also denied by Baraitser.
‘There is a real risk he will contract coronavirus and suffer a fatality or a serious illness,” Fitzgerald said.
“For 23 hours a day he is in solitary. The opportunity for infection of corona are still there because he is exercising with 40 other people in a confined space. All the fears we have have become compounded,” he said.
Fitzgerald then told the court that Assange would be allowed no visitors.
“He may himself die due to increased risk of exposure. All past lifelines of support for him have been shut down. I was told the weekly visits will be cut down and now I’m told they will not take place at all,” Fitzgerald said.
It was not immediately clear how this would affect visits by his attorneys.
Kristinn Hrafnnson, editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, blasted Baraitser’s decision to deny bail as “barbaric.”
“To expose another human being to serious illness, and to the threat of losing their life, is grotesque and quite unnecessary. This is not justice, it is a barbaric decision,” Hrafnnson said.
@wikileaks editor-in-chief @khrafnsson condemns the decision not to release Julian #Assange on bail in light of the #Coronavirus crisis. More than 100 staff from Belmarsh are off sick. pic.twitter.com/V99fMOjUXD
— Don't Extradite Assange (@DEAcampaign) March 25, 2020
WikiLeaks Ambassador Joseph Farrell said: “This is a dangerous and cruel decision. Coronavirus will spread in Belmarsh. With 100 Belmarsh staff off ill Julian is already at risk. Visits have been cancelled. He will have no access to friends and family and his time with his legal team will be reduced further. How is anyone supposed to prepare a defense in such conditions.”
Nils Melzer, the UN special rapporteur on torture, said the denial of bail came as “no surprise.”
If #UK cared for #Assange’s health, #justice or #RuleOfLaw, he would not be persecuted, imprisoned & tortured for the purpose of suppressing #PressFreedom & facing extradition to a country claiming total impunity for #Torture & #WarCrimes. https://t.co/6q9pZwgVre
— Nils Melzer (@NilsMelzer) March 25, 2020
On the final day of Assange’s extradition hearing in February Baraitser had invited Assange’s lawyers to apply for bail after their requests that he be allowed to leave a bullet-proof box at the back of the courtroom to sit with his lawyers during the process.
Remember her name. In denying Julian #Assange bail, London magistrate Vanessa Baraitser achieves infamy for her wicked cruelty. A chronic lung condition makes Julian a prime target of coronavirus. Nineteen UK prisoners have tested positive. And she condemns him to suffer alone.
— John Pilger (@johnpilger) March 26, 2020
Plea to Postpone May Hearing
Fitzgerald pled to the court to postpone the resumption of Assange’s hearing for three weeks beginning on May 18. Bloomberg News reported: “The remaining three weeks of the Australian’s extradition trial, currently scheduled for May, is probably no longer feasible due to the number of witnesses abroad and difficulties in preparing the case while under lock-down, his lawyer said.”
The Wednesday hearing was only attended by 14 people in addition to Baraitser. Technical difficulties marred the attempt to hold the case management hearing by video conference.
“The legal system is grappling with something its never faced before: how to maintain justice while adhering to strict rules imposed by the government. The move to shift often ancient court rooms into using modern-day technology to connect lawyers, court reporters and litigants around the world hasn’t been smooth.
Officials originally gave the wrong phone number, and calls were ringing on the desk of a frustrated receptionist at a brokerage firm. Assange’s long-time lawyer Gareth Pierce was having trouble accessing the hearing.
Baraitser arrived, but the next five minutes were a chorus of “Can you hear me?” The judge took the time to thank Assange’s supporters for observing social distancing rules.
Along with Baraitser and her clerk, 14 people were present in the court at Westminster, including Assange’s fans and an attorney sporting a surgical mask. It was a far cry from the first week of his trial in February, where hundreds of supporters and journalists queued for hours, desperate to get a seat in court.”
Joe Lauria is editor-in-chief of Consortium News and a former correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, Sunday Times of London and numerous other newspapers. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @unjoe .