Will Julian Assange Die in Prison?
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is suffering significant “psychological torture” and abuse in the London prison where he is being held, and his life is now “at risk,” according to an independent UN rights expert. A senior member of his legal team believes Assange may not live until the end of the extradition process.
Assange mumbled, stuttered, and struggled to say his own name and date of birth when he appeared in court on October 21. The Wikileaks founder is being subjected to long drawn-out “psychological torture” as he battles to prevent his extradition to the United States where he faces a slew of espionage charges, warns Nils Melzer, the UN special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment.
“Unless the UK urgently changes course and alleviates his inhumane situation, Mr. Assange’s continued exposure to arbitrariness and abuse may soon end up costing his life,” Melzer said in a statement on Friday.
“His physical appearance was not as shocking as his mental deterioration,” writes former British ambassador Craig Murray, who was present at the October hearing. “When asked to give his name and date of birth, he struggled visibly over several seconds to recall both… his difficulty in making it was very evident; it was a real struggle for him to articulate the words and focus his train of thought… Until yesterday I had always been quietly skeptical of those who claimed that Julian’s treatment amounted to torture… and skeptical of those who suggested he may be subject to debilitating drug treatments. But having attended the trials in Uzbekistan of several victims of extreme torture, and having worked with survivors from Sierra Leone and elsewhere, I can tell you that … Julian exhibited exactly the symptoms of a torture victim brought blinking into the light, particularly in terms of disorientation, confusion, and the real struggle to assert free will through the fog of learned helplessness.”
“One of the greatest journalists and most important dissidents of our times is being tortured to death by the state, before our eyes. To see my friend, the most articulate man, the fastest thinker, I have ever known, reduced to that shambling and incoherent wreck, was unbearable,” writes Murray.
Melzer, who is not speaking on behalf of the UN, visited Belmarsh prison in May and conducted an extensive review of Assange’s physical and psychological condition. Melzer told the AFP news agency that his increased alarm is based on “new medically relevant information received from reliable sources” that indicate “Assange’s health has entered a downward spiral of progressively severe anxiety, stress and helplessness typical for persons exposed to prolonged isolation and constant arbitrariness.”
“While the precise evolution is difficult to predict with certainty, this pattern of symptoms can quickly develop into a life-threatening situation involving cardiovascular breakdown or nervous collapse,” he told AFP.
Assange is kept in complete isolation for 23 hours a day, and permitted 45 minutes exercise. When he has to be moved, guards clear the corridors and lock all cells to guarantee he has no contact with any other prisoner outside the exercise period.
Assange “continues to be detained under oppressive conditions of isolation and surveillance, not justified by his detention status,” said Melzer, who pointed out that Assange completed his prison sentence for violating his British bail terms and is “being held exclusively in relation to the pending extradition request from the United States.”
The US charges that Assange, an Australian citizen, violated the U.S. Espionage Act in 2010 when he published a series of leaks provided by Chelsea Manning. Those leaks include the Afghanistan war logs, the Iraq war logs, the Collateral Murder video, and classified U.S. State Department cables. For her role, Manning was court martialed and sentenced to 35 years in prison. After serving seven and a half years in prison, Manning had her sentence commuted by President Obama, but she has since been jailed again for her refusal to testify against Assange.
The U.S. has claimed that Wikileaks’ publications have caused the deaths of Americans serving overseas. But no evidence has ever surfaced to prove this, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in 2010 that such claims were “significantly overwrought.”
Nevertheless, the U.S. wants Assange because the information he published was deeply embarrassing to the government. The British courts have already signed off on an extradition order and he will remain behind bars until the hearing, which isn’t until early next year, according to The New York Times.
And curiously, even though mainstream media once heralded Assange’s publications, there is substantially less coverage of his current plight, former CIA officer Raymond McGovern told The American Conservative.
To McGovern, the timing of the U.S. decision to press charges is particularly suspect; charges were announced right after Assange published that the CIA has cyber-tools that can leave a false digital footprint. McGovern, who had visited Assange during his seven-year asylum in the the Ecuadoran embassy, has been a vocal supporter since the beginning.
“The CIA can hack into a system and make it look like the Russians did it,” said McGovern. This challenges the official narrative that Russians hacked the DNC server, exposing Hillary Clinton’s emails. “Imagine that.”
The October hearing was Assange’s first public appearance since May. Illness has prevented him from attending previous hearings.
The UK ignored earlier pleas that to protect Assange’s health and dignity, Melzer said, and his condition has progressed to the point where “his life was now at risk.”
In fact, when Melzer tried to raise the alarm in the media, The Guardian, The Times, the Financial Times, the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Canberra Times, The Telegraph, The New York Times,The Washington Post, Thomson Reuters Foundation, and Newsweek all refused to publish his op-ed.
Instead of addressing Assange’s health, “what we have seen from the UK government is outright contempt for Mr. Assange’s rights and integrity,” said Melzer. “Despite the medical urgency of my appeal, and the seriousness of the alleged violations, the UK has not undertaken any measures of investigation, prevention and redress required under international law.”
Assange has lost 33 pounds during his imprisonment, according to Australian filmmaker John Pilger. He attended the hearing and has visited Assange in Belmarsh prison.
“To see him in court struggling to say his name, and his date of birth, was really very moving,” said Pilger. “When Julian did try to speak, and to say that basically he was being denied the very tools with which to prepare his case, he was denied the right to call his American lawyer. He was denied the right to have any kind of word processor or laptop. He was denied… his own notes and manuscripts.”
Assange’s “access to legal counsel and documents has been severely obstructed” undermining “his most fundamental right to prepare his defense,” charged Melzer.
The judge refused to grant Assange’s request to delay the February trial.
The lack of legal process in the hearing was “profoundly upsetting,” to watch unfold, writes Murray, because it is “a naked demonstration of the power of the state.”
“Unless Julian is released shortly he will be destroyed,” writes Murray. “If the state can do this, then who is next?”
Barbara Boland is The American Conservative’s foreign policy and national security reporter. Follow her on Twitter @BBatDC.