Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has had his application for bail denied and has been sent back to HMP Belmarsh in London. His application was rejected by District Judge Vanessa Baraitser at a hearing in Westminster Magistrates Court on 25 March. His lawyers argued that the application for bail was to avoid contracting coronavirus, which is beginning to sweep through prisons. The high security prison is no longer accepting visitors and more than 100 of its staff are self-isolating.
Speaking in Parliament on 24 March, Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said the virus posed an “acute” risk in prisons, many of which are overcrowded. Some 3,500 prison staff – about 10% of the workforce – were off work because they were ill or self-isolating, a committee of MPs was told.
The decision not to release Assange was strongly condemned by Doctors4Assange, https://doctorsassange.org/ a group of more than 100 doctors, who released the following statement: ‘Doctors4Assange strongly condemns Wednesday’s decision by UK District Judge Vanessa Baraitser to deny bail to Julian Assange. Despite our prior unequivocal statement 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”. 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.’
They continued: ‘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” see: http://theconversation.com/we-need-to-consider-granting-bail-to-unsentenced-prisoners-to-stop-the-spread-of-coronavirus-134526
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’.
Assange’s extradition case was adjourned until 7 April.