Almost unnoticed by the mainstream press on both sides of the Atlantic, a troubling landmark was reached last week when Julian Assange passed the one year mark in British custody following his very public removal from Ecuador’s London embassy on April 11th, 2019. The milestone was reached despite the obvious risks to his health, with the magistrate overseeing the U.S. government’s extradition request, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser, denying Assange’s bail request and returning him to Belmarsh prison until his hearing, which is scheduled to begin on May 18th.
Somewhat cleverly, in their initial extradition request, U.S. authorities at first charged the Wikileaks co-founder with a cybercrime in relation to leaks provided to the organization by Chelsea Manning a decade ago. At the time of the initial charge, many of Assange’s supporters, including Edward Snowden, argued that his advice to Manning was the equivalent to a journalist ethically trying to protect a source.
Nonetheless, this initial charge now seems minor in comparison to what came after, with the American government bringing more serious charges under the country’s Espionage Act late in the 60 day window for adding them, taking the publisher’s potential sentence from 5 to 175 years. Although the charges could have led to a death sentence under American law, verbal assurances have been given and accepted by the U.K. government that this penalty will not be sought.
The story of Assange’s continuing incarceration could have been used to make a larger point about the very real risks being faced by those in prisons like Belmarsh, where at least two deaths related to Covid 19 infection have been reported so far and 150 staff members have gone into self-isolation after they or family members developed symptoms.
Dangerously for inmates there, as told to long term Assange defender Craig Murray, a former U.K. ambassador, prisoners at Belmarsh with coughs, rather than being tested or, at the very least, being put into isolation, are being held together in “segregated blocks”. For Assange in particular, such an arrangement could amount to a death sentence anyway, as Murray wrote, “The consequences… are of course potentially unthinkable. Julian has a cough and chronic lung condition for which he has been treated for years – a fact which is not in dispute.”
British prisons are some of the most overcrowded in the world but the risks involved for those held and those working in these places during a pandemic are similar for most carceral regimes in Europe and North America; as Catherine Heard of the Institute for Crime and Policy Research recently told Business Insider in regards to prisoners, “Reduced access to fresh air and natural light, cramped living spaces, poor access to medical treatment and screening — these factors speed up the spread of infection and are typical of prison environments.”
Even without the unique risks presented by the novel coronavirus, Belmarsh, often referred to as the U.K.’s toughest prison, isn’t the safest of places for those held behind its walls. As of January, three men imprisoned there had died over the previous twelve months. In late February another was found beaten to death.
As reported by Common Dreams, two thirds of Belmarsh inmates have been convicted of violent offenses and Assange is just one of two prisoners held there for jumping bail.
Further, the truth is that Assange has been treated at times in the manner of a dangerous criminal when his only crime in the U.K. was skipping bail and seeking asylum in the Ecuadoran embassy, a decision that’s caused him immense suffering and an offense that only allows for a maximum sentence of one year.
In an earlier piece, I had thought that Assange’s supporters, including his father, were behind glass in the court’s gallery during a hearing in February, in fact, it was the publisher who was seated in a glass cage one might think would be reserved for someone with a long history of violence. This has had the added impact of not allowing the defendant to confer with his lawyers during hearings.
While some might argue that Assange’s year and counting in prison isn’t news considering the current health crisis, in fact the tabloid press found something they reported widely as prurient after Judge Traitser decided it was in the public interest to release the names of his fiance and the two children he’d fathered with her, part of his legal team while he was confined to the embassy and the person into whose custody he would have been released.
Regardless, it’s hard to see how Judge Traitser saw releasing their names and possibly putting them at risk as necessary, although it may have backfired as the result of a moving video created by his fiance, Stella Morris, that humanizes Assange and might evoke some sympathy for him and likely more for his previously secret family.
More troubling still is evidence that U.S. authorities, having taken his papers and other possessions in the wake of his arrest, also took diapers believed to have been worn by one of his two sons from the embassy, presumably for DNA testing.
Also missing from many of these stories about the publisher’s sex life was the fact that a Spanish firm, Undercover Global, engaged in the private collection of intelligence including audio and video recordings, forwarded intimate details of his life in the embassy to the CIA, including meetings with his lawyers, which should have been privileged as they could give U.S. prosecutors insight into his defense strategy.
Whatever one thinks of Assange as a person, he did at times seem intent on further provoking the powerful forces arrayed against him. For example, inserting himself into the debate about Catalonia independence at least helped to spur his ejection from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and may have made the surveillance that took place easier to justify for Undercover Global, which surely has deep ties to that country’s government.
If Assange is extradited and found guilty of the charges against him in the United States, almost any investigative journalist (or even opinion writer) who writes about national security issues using leaks could conceivably share his fate. While extradition treaties have been used by the U.S. government in the past to bring foreign fugitives like Jaoquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman to trial, expanding its use to an Australian citizen under such dubious charges opens the door to further injustice against truth tellers far into the future.
On top of Assange’s individual case, the current health crisis is expanding the surveillance state in ways likely not dreamed of by authorities in most countries until this very moment. While this may be necessary at present to stem the spread of the disease, putting these powers into the hands of people Wikileaks and others have shown as either malicious or grossly incompetent over time has the makings of a future disaster.