ASSANGE EXTRADITION: Doctors Warning on Assange in a Covid-19 Breeding Ground

In a prison cited for failing to curb infections, Doctors4Assange warn that Julian Assange is at high risk of contracting the deadly coronavirus.

According to a report Wednesday in The Daily Maverick, imprisoned WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange is one of only two prisoners of 797 inmates in Belmarsh Prison who are being held for skipping bail. The majority are violent criminals, including 20 percent for murder and 16 inmates on terrorism offenses. The facility was also repeatedly criticized by prison inspectors for a lapse in preventing infections to inmatesFollowing Judge Vanessa Baraitser’s decision to deny Assange bail last week, Doctors4 Assange released the following statement:

Doctors4Assange Statement on Assange
Bail Hearing over Coronavirus Risk

March 27, 2020

Doctors4Assange strongly condemns last Wednesday’s decision by UK District Judge Vanessa Baraitser to deny bail to Julian Assange. Despite our prior unequivocal statement[1] that Mr Assange is at increased risk of serious illness and death were he to contract coronavirus, and the evidence of medical experts, Baraitser dismissed the risk, citing UK guidelines for prisons in responding to the global pandemic: “I have no reason not to trust this advice as both evidence-based and reliable and appropriate.”[2]

Notably, however, Baraitser did not address the increased risk to Mr Assange relative to the general UK prison population, let alone prisoners at HMP Belmarsh where Assange is incarcerated. Nor did she address the rapidly emerging medical and legal consensus that vulnerable and low-risk prisoners should be released, immediately.

As the court heard, Mr Assange is at increased risk of contracting and dying from the novel disease coronavirus (COVID-19), a development which has led the World Health Organization to declare a public health emergency of international concern[3] and a global pandemic.[4] The reasons for Mr Assange’s increased risk include his ongoing psychological torture, his history of medical neglect and fragile health, and chronic lung disease.

Edward Fitzgerald, QC, representing Mr Assange, said, “These [medical] experts consider that he is particularly at risk of developing coronavirus and, if he does, that it develops into very severe complications for him… If he does develop critical symptoms it would be very doubtful that Belmarsh would be able to cope with his condition.”[5]

Baraitser’s casual dismissal of Mr Assange’s dire situation in the face of the COVID-19 emergency stood in stark contrast not only to the expert medical evidence, but the proceedings themselves. The hearing took place on the third day of the UK’s coronavirus lock-down. Of the two counsels representing Mr Assange, Edward Fitzgerald QC wore a facemask and Mark Summers QC participated via audiolink. US attorneys joined the proceedings by phone.

Mr Assange himself appeared by videolink, which was terminated after around an hour, rendering him unable to follow the remainder of his own hearing, including the defence summation and the District Judge’s ruling. Mr Assange’s supporters attending in person observed social distancing measures. Overall only 15 people were in attendance, including judge, counsel, and observers.

Baraitser further erred by stating that because no prisoners at HMP Belmarsh currently have coronavirus, Assange was not yet at risk. Mr Assange’s counsel noted, in contrast, that they had difficulty visiting him after being told by Belmarsh staff that over 100 Belmarsh employees are currently “self-isolating”. Furthermore, it is unclear whether any Belmarsh prisoners have even been tested for coronavirus.

Baraitser’s assurance that government measures were adequate to protect Mr Assange also rang hollow on the very day the UK government announced that Prince Charles tested positive for COVID-19. If the UK government cannot protect its own royal family from the disease, how can it adequately protect its most vulnerable prisoners in prisons, which have been described as “breeding grounds” for coronavirus? 

Furthermore, news emerged on the day of the hearing that 19 prisoners in 10 prisons across the UK had tested positive for coronavirus, an increase of 6 prisoners in 24 hours.[6] From the time of the hearing to date, two UK inmates have died from COVID-19, both of whom, like Assange, are men in high risk groups.[7]

This news, and the decision to deny Mr Assange bail, is alarming in light of numerous statements and reports that have called out the risk to prisoners, urgently recommending release of non-violent prisoners, as well as actions taken by other nations to alleviate the risk.

Specifically, a March 17 report[8] by Professor of Public Health, Richard Coker of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, found that “congregate settings” such as prisons provide ideal conditions for “explosive transmission” of coronavirus. “Hours matter” in terms of containment, Professor Coker warns. The report recommends that “if detention is unnecessary it should be relaxed. This should be done before the virus has a chance to enter a detention centre.” 

Accordingly, on the same day as Mr. Assange’s bail hearing, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, issued a statement[9] calling on authorities to release prisoners who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, as well as low-risk inmates. “Now, more than ever, governments should release every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners and others detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views”, she said.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has warned that in a health crisis such as that posed by COVID-19, the rights of detained people must be protected under the UN ‘Mandela Rules’ governing the rights of prisoners, noting that prisons are home to vulnerable populations such as the elderly, inmates with illnesses or disabilities, and pregnant or juvenile detainees. Such populations are often detained in facilities that are “overcrowded” and “unhygienic”, in some cases “dangerously so” she stressed.

“Physical distancing and self-isolation in such conditions are practically impossible”, the High Commissioner wrote. “With outbreaks of the disease, and an increasing number of deaths, already reported in prisons and other institutions in an expanding number of countries, authorities should act now to prevent further loss of life among detainees and staff.”

Consistent with that advice, in Mr Assange’s home country of Australia, on March 24 the New South Wales government announced[10] the early release of select prisoners, based on their “health vulnerability” and custodial and conviction status, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the US, the chief physician of Rikers Island, New York, has urged judges and prosecutors to release inmates, where possible, to protect them from coronavirus, and 600 prisoners incarcerated for minor and non-violent offences have been released in Los Angeles. Over 3,000 doctors and medical workers have also signed an open letter urging US immigration authorities to release detainees in order to mitigate the COVID-19 outbreak.[11]

Adding their legal voices to these medical and human rights authorities, the day after Mr Assange’s bail hearing, three professors in law and criminology recommended “granting bail to unsentenced prisoners to stop the spread of coronavirus”.[12]

Julian Assange is just such an unsentenced prisoner with significant health vulnerability. He is being held on remand, with no custodial sentence or UK charge in place, let alone conviction.

Doctors4Assange are additionally concerned that keeping Assange in Belmarsh not only increases his risk of contracting coronavirus, it will increase his isolation and his inability to prepare his defence for his upcoming extradition hearing, in violation of his human right to prepare a defence. Mr Assange’s lawyers have been increasingly restricted from visiting him as prisons lockdown visitation to prevent spread of the coronavirus.

These two factors are already major contributors to Mr Assange’s psychological torture, and we are alarmed that the combination of Baraitser’s decision, together with increasingly stringent prison restrictions in response to the pandemic, will intensify that very torture. This further increases his vulnerability to coronavirus.

Moreover, Assange’s witnesses are unlikely to be able to travel to his extradition hearing in May, due to travel restrictions put in place by either the UK or their home countries. This could result in further delay to his extradition hearing, thereby prolonging his medically dangerous abuse by psychological torture and politically motivated medical neglect, as we detailed in our letter published in the March 7 issue of The Lancet.[13]

Kristinn Hrafnsson, editor in chief of WikiLeaks, summarised Baraitser’s decision in a manner consistent with the overwhelming medical and legal consensus, and long held-medical ethics: “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.”[14]

Contact: info@doctorsassange.org
Twitter: https://twitter.com/doctors4assange


[1] From the Doctros4Assange website: https://doctorsassange.org/embargoed-press-release-doctors-for-assange-reply-to-minister-payne-18-03-20/

[2] From Marty Silk live tweet during the proceedings: https://twitter.com/MartySilkHack/status/1242807708778192897

[3] From the World Health Organization website: https://www.who.int/news-room/detail/30-01-2020-statement-on-the-second-meeting-of-the-international-health-regulations-(2005)-emergency-committee-regarding-the-outbreak-of-novel-coronavirus-(2019-ncov)

[4] From the World Health Organization website: http://www.euro.who.int/en/health-topics/health-emergencies/coronavirus-covid-19/news/news/2020/3/who-announces-covid-19-outbreak-a-pandemic

[5] Bridges for Media Freedom, Briefing, Assange Bail Application, 25 March 2020.

[6]https://www.expressandstar.com/news/uk-news/2020/03/25/prisons-19-inmates-test-positive-for-coronavirus-in-10-jails/

[7]https://metro.co.uk/2020/03/26/second-uk-prisoner-dies-contracting-coronavirus-inside-12459973/

[8]https://detentionaction.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Report-on-Detention-and-COVID-Final-1.pdf

[9]https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=25745&LangID=E

[10]https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw-prepares-for-early-release-of-prisoners-during-covid-19-pandemic-20200324-p54db5.html

[11]https://countercurrents.org/2020/03/coronavirus-pandemic-u-s-doctors-demand-immediate-release-of-prisoners-and-detainees

[12]http://theconversation.com/we-need-to-consider-granting-bail-to-unsentenced-prisoners-to-stop-the-spread-of-coronavirus-134526

[13]https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)30383-4/fulltext

[14]https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/julian-assange-coronavirus-prison-bail-release-belmarsh-latest-a9424621.html

14 comments for “ASSANGE EXTRADITION: Doctors Warning on Assange in a Covid-19 Breeding Ground

  1. Fiona
    April 1, 2020 at 20:52

    Mr. Assange has SERVED HIS TIME for skipping bail. So, he’s not in there for that. He’s in there so that the UK can toady to the US.

  2. April 1, 2020 at 20:35

    We shouldn’t need to ask that he be released on bail. He shouldn’t be in prison at all, because he is obviously an innocent man. Not only that, he is a distinguished and revered journalist. When a justice system becomes corrupt and biased in such decisions, all society should fear the consequences!

  3. Sally
    April 1, 2020 at 17:08

    I believe in allowing all non violent prisoners too be allowed out of prison and supported by government services to isolate in unused hotels motels to ride out this pandemic to protect their lives and give less worry to the prisoners families it is the most humane thing to do that means allowing Mr Assange the decency to protect himself also

  4. rosemerry
    April 1, 2020 at 16:50

    Baraitser as a judge, when she accepts hearsay remarks that Julian may abscond(!) and assumes the disgraceful actions she is taking will lead to his extradition to the USA or his death before then, shows the state of Brutish (sic) justice.

  5. Subrata Ghoshroy
    April 1, 2020 at 16:15

    Chelsea Manning was released from detention by a US judge recently after dismissing the grand jury which was gathering information on the Wikileaks case. Manning was held in solitary confinement and became suicidal while steadfastly refusing to cooperate with US authorities. Many prisoners are being released all over the world to prevent a Covid-19 outbreak that would wreak havoc on the prisoners held in close proximity to one another. It is unconscionable that a British judge can play Russian roulette with a prisoner’s life. It is unbelievable that a woman can have so little compassion.

    Subrata Ghoshroy
    Boston, Massachusetts, USA

  6. April 1, 2020 at 11:34

    Agree with Fred

  7. Noah Way
    April 1, 2020 at 10:13

    Welcome to the UK, America’s obedient lap dog.

  8. H Georg Brüning
    April 1, 2020 at 10:08

    Summa summarum – it’s really very, very simple – they want him dead, it’s not difficult to understand that , the faster the better – though it will be called it suicide ! / HGB

  9. GMCasey
    April 1, 2020 at 09:54

    That Judge should be arrested for attempted murder of Julian Assange. If she is able to murder him——-then the UK will be known as the land of No Justice–No Peace.

  10. Buffalo_Ken
    April 1, 2020 at 09:52

    In the future I imagine, there will NEVER be another so-called “magistrate” like Ms. Baraitser.

    She seems to take glee is essentially sentencing an innocent man who has committed no offense to DEATH.

    The mystery (not so much really) is where did this magistrate come from (supposedly South Africa is what I hear) and how did she get assigned to this role that she is now playing. She seems heartless to me.

  11. Jon Adams
    April 1, 2020 at 09:46

    It is clear to me that the “authorities” want Julian Assange dead. They don’t want him on the stand in any proceeding saying anything at all. Besides, their charges are dubious. They have no jurisdiction. Hence, the reason why the First Amendment doesn’t “apply” in Assange’s case.

  12. romeo de lorenzis
    April 1, 2020 at 08:48

    All governments around the world in this time of crises are helping the return of all they citizens from abroad
    my government the Australian government is not even able to give embassy support and legal assistance and bring home to one of it prominent citizen Julian Assange

    Dear Assange stay strong, the ordinary Aussies have not forgotten you, you are a hero,this arbitrary detention you are in is so unjustified.
    Pray to God in Jesus name to give you strength to over come this ordeal and trust in God, it has all way’s worked for me.

    Hope you come home soon.

    Kind regards
    Romeo De lorenzis
    Australia

  13. Fred Williams
    April 1, 2020 at 07:30

    Any court that keeps political prisoners under such horrid conditions has lost all legitimacy. So the question of whether he is a “flight risk” is spurious. He *should* be a flight risk. The U.N. has instructed the U.K. to release him on at least 2 occasions. The world needs Julian Assange to be free again!

    • exiled off mainstreet
      April 1, 2020 at 12:45

      Baraitser reveals her own criminality with this decision, with all of the implications which stem from that conclusion.

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