An independent UN human rights expert has welcomed a British court’s refusal to extradite Wikileaks founder Julian Assange to the United States on the basis that he would be exposed to oppressive conditions of imprisonment.
#UK: UN expert @NilsMelzer welcomes British court’s refusal to extradite Wikileaks founder #JulianAssange to US on basis that he would be exposed to “oppressive” conditions of imprisonment that would almost certainly cause him to commit suicide.— UN Special Procedures (@UN_SPExperts) January 5, 2021
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“This ruling confirms my own assessment that, in the United States, Mr. Assange would be exposed to conditions of detention, which are widely recognized to amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” said the Special Rapporteur.
The Wikileaks founder is currently being held in prolonged solitary confinement at Belmarsh Prison in London under a US extradition request for espionage and computer fraud.
On Wednesday, a district judge ruled against granting bail to Mr. Assange while he continues to fight extradition, the US having appealed the UK court's decision.
“If extradited to the United States, he faces a sentence of up to 175 years imprisonment under inhumane conditions of near total isolation,” Mr. Melzer added.
According to the news release, the Special Rapporteur repeatedly expressed in individual communications and statements that Mr. Assange has been subjected to more than 10 years of arbitrary detention and political persecution. During a visit conducted to Belmarsh Prison in 2019, the rights expert and a specialized medical team found that Mr. Assange showed all the symptoms typical for prolonged exposure to psychological torture.
An alarming precedent
At the same time, Monday’s court judgement sets an alarming precedent effectively denying investigative journalists the protection of press freedom and paving the way for their prosecution under charges of espionage, Mr. Melzer said.
“I am gravely concerned that the judgement confirms the entire, very dangerous rationale underlying the US indictment, which effectively amounts to criminalizing national security journalism,” added the rights expert.
The US has announced it will appeal the judgment, but welcomed the judge's dismissal of all arguments in defence of Mr. Assange based on press freedom, the public interest in the exposure of government misconduct, the prohibition of political offence extraditions, and the US failure to provide fair trials to national security defendants, according to the news release.
I am gravely concerned that the judgement confirms the entire, very dangerous rationale underlying the US indictment, which effectively amounts to criminalizing national security journalism – Nils Melzer
“This is of great concern,” said Mr. Melzer, adding that “none of these questions will now be reviewed by the Appeals Court, as the only issue at stake will be Mr. Assange's medical fitness to withstand US conditions of detention.”
“Should the US provide assurances that Mr. Assange will be treated humanely, his extradition could potentially be confirmed on appeal without any meaningful review of the very serious legal concerns raised by this case,” he said.
Failure to denounce persecution
Mr. Melzer also said that the the judgement failed to recognize that Mr. Assange’s deplorable state of health is the “direct consequence of a decade of deliberate and systematic violation of his most fundamental human rights by the Governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Ecuador.”
He added that the failure of the judgment to denounce and redress the persecution and torture of Mr. Assange, leaves fully intact the intended intimidating effect on journalists and whistle-blowers worldwide who may be tempted to publish secret evidence for war crimes, corruption and other government misconduct.
“Mr. Assange must now be immediately set free, rehabilitated and compensated for the abuse and arbitrariness he has been exposed to,” said Mr. Melzer, adding that Mr. Assange could await the final judgement in a setting where he can recover his health and live a normal family and professional life.
“Hopefully this judgement will put an end to the persecution and imprisonment of Mr. Julian Assange as an individual. But in the big picture it sets a devastating precedent severely undermining press freedom, accountability and the rule of law,” the Special Rapporteur added.
Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. The experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.