The Julian Assange case has become one of the most serious attacks on freedom of speech and freedom of the press in the last few years. Instead of taking the side of justice and ensuring respect for the civil rights of the founder of WikiLeaks, the UK criminal legal system puts his life at risk, does not provide proper medical care and resorts to psychological violence.
The criminal prosecution of Julian Assange began after the WikiLeaks organization founded by him published a number of secret documents describing war crimes committed by American and British troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. For example, the organization published a classified military video called “Collateral Murder” in which American troops indiscriminately killed more than a dozen people in the suburbs of an Iraqi city, including two journalists: Namir Nur-Eldin and Said Chmag. In addition, Assange published hundreds of thousands of secret military documents covering the period from January 2004 to December 2009, which presented a picture of the American war in Iraq and Afghanistan, very different from the more rosy official version of the United States and Great Britain.
Two years after a criminal case of sexual harassment and rape was fabricated against Assange in 2010, he was forced to take refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. For more than seven years, while the journalist was hiding in the embassy from extradition on trumped-up charges, the American government spied on him with the help of a private company that was engaged in the protection of the building. According to the Spanish newspaper El Pais, the contractor regularly transmitted audio and video recordings of meetings between the Wikileaks founder and his lawyers to the CIA. Hidden cameras and microphones were installed throughout the Ecuadorian embassy, including in the women’s restroom, where Assange sometimes held meetings in an attempt to avoid potential surveillance.
On April 11, 2019, the UK obtained from the government of Ecuador the deprivation of the right to asylum for Assange in its embassy in London, after which the journalist was arrested and taken to prison. On May 23, 2019, the US Department of Justice indicted the founder of WikiLeaks on 18 counts, the total penalty for which is 175 years in prison. Even though the journalist’s 50-week prison term in a maximum-security British prison ended on September 22, 2019, the British authorities refused to release him “for special reasons.” Since then, the American government has been seeking Assange’s extradition to the United States. Moreover, in September last year, the US presidential administration was negotiating the abduction of Assange or even his murder.
At the end of April 2022, a British court decided to extradite Assange to the United States, where he will be tried for publishing government documents that confirmed the deaths of more than 65,000 civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan at the hands of American soldiers. Even though in December 2018, the UK provided written assurances that Assange would not be extradited to the United States, in June 2022, the head of the British Ministry of the Interior, Priti Patel, approved the extradition of the journalist to the United States.
The approval of Assange’s extradition to the United States not only violates the written promises of the UK, but also puts the journalist’s life at risk. Michael Kopelman, a professor of neuropsychiatry at King’s College London, who has visited Assange about 20 times, testified that the WikiLeaks founder is likely to try to commit suicide if he is extradited to the United States. It is reported that Assange even suffered a stroke during the hearing in October as a result of the severe stress and suffering he experienced. The UN representative, who visited the journalist in prison, expressed his fears that Assange’s rights could be seriously violated if he was extradited to the United States, and condemned the deliberate and concerted abuses that WikiLeaks employees have been subjected to for many years. Niels Meltzer, the UN special Rapporteur on torture, said he was most concerned about the fact that in the United States “there is a real risk of serious violations of Assange’s rights, including his right to freedom of expression, his right to a fair trial. A number of tortures and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment may be used against him.”
At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, when Assange was detained in a British prison, he was not provided with proper medical care. In the prison where he is awaiting extradition, more than a quarter of the prisoners were infected with coronavirus. In July 2020, the Lancet medical journal, one of the oldest and most authoritative, published an article calling on the British government to immediately stop the torture and bullying of Julian Assange. According to the authors of the material, no responsible British body took absolutely no action to provide medical assistance to the journalist after his health deteriorated amid the spread of COVID-19. Due to his poor health, Assange was forced to attend a court hearing in London via videocall, and due to the closure of UK prisons for quarantine, he was deprived of meetings with lawyers, which negatively affected the preparation for future hearings. The authors of the article reported that Assange spends about 23 hours in solitary confinement, which is psychological torture that can cause severe despair, disorientation, destabilization and disintegration of the most important mental functions. The World Psychiatric Association stressed that the refusal of proper treatment in itself can be equated to torture, but the British government refuses to consider the journalist as a victim of psychological torture, as this would make his extradition illegal.
On the day when British Interior Minister Priti Patel approved his extradition to the United States, the British prison staff conducted a full body search of Assange, after which they placed him in solitary confinement for several days. The prison administration said the suspect’s solitary confinement was done “for his own safety.”
The British government’s mockery of Julian Assange sets an alarming precedent and is a gross violation of international human rights agreements. The Foundation to Battle Injustice joins a dozen human rights organizations around the world advocating for Assange’s release and the prevention of his torture by the British authorities. Human rights activists of the Foundation to Battle Injustice urge the British Ministry of the Interior not to follow the lead of the United States and consider the journalist’s appeal against the decision on his extradition, filed at the end of June 2022, as openly and impartially as possible.