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1 Nov, 2021 13:09

Julian Assange's extradition show trial now boils down to exactly how suicidal he is, proving this has never been about justice

Julian Assange's extradition show trial now boils down to exactly how suicidal he is, proving this has never been about justice

The US has put Assange’s mental health in the spotlight, while offering worthless assurances. Now the conversation is no longer about criminalizing journalism, but whether Assange is healthy enough to be sent to his death.

This week, I attended the High Court hearing where US lawyers appealed against a UK judge’s decision in January not to extradite Australian journalist and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Judge Vanessa Baraitser previously blocked the extradition on the grounds that it would be oppressive to his health, and that US prison conditions are inhumane.

Appealing on five grounds, the two main elements of the appeal dealt with Assange’s health, and diplomatic assurances that he wouldn’t be placed in oppressive prison conditions in America. The United States lawyers attempted to downplay the severity of Assange’s mental illness, arguing that he was not at high risk of suicide. The prosecutors argued that he did not meet the criteria for his extradition to be considered oppressive. 

Also on rt.com Chris Hedges: The Assange case is the most important battle for press freedom in our time

The case now hinges on whether the United States can prove Assange is not too sick to be extradited, and that Judge Baraitser erred in her ruling. To do this, they have attacked the medical evidence she cited in her report and the medical experts themselves.

Julian’s state of mind

Professor Michael Kopelman is the key medical expert for Assange’s defense. In his first psychiatric evaluation, Kopelman concealed the identity of Assange’s partner Stella Moris and their children, out of concern for their privacy and safety.

This was after revelations that Assange was being spied on in the Ecuadorian embassy. His lawyers told the High Court that Stella Moris even moved to a different address for more protection. It’s against this backdrop of surveillance, attempting to steal DNA, and even contemplating to kill Assange, that Kopelman was advised not to disclose the relationship with Moris, or their children.

The judge deemed this inappropriate, but “an understandable human response to Ms. Moris’ predicament.” She preferred Kopelman’s evidence, as he had spent the most time with Assange, and his reports were more detailed.

Despite this point having little to do with medical science or psychiatry, the prosecution have used it to try and discredit allof Kopelman’s medical evidence. They say the judge should have given it little or no weight. They accuse Kopelman of misleading the court, and failing in his duty as an impartial, expert witness.

Assange’s lawyer Edward Fitzgerald branded it a “miserable attempt to tarnish the reputation of a distinguished neuro-psychiatrist.”

The United States are basically trying to sink the entire case, on a technicality that has nothing to do with psychiatry. In fact, Kopelman is such a renowned neuropsychiatrist that even the US lead prosecutor, James Lewis, had solicited his services in another case – something which Kopelman reminded him in court.

The prosecution claim Assange is only moderately depressed, able to control the urge to commit suicide, and therefore fit to be extradited. But this fails to consider the person who makes plans to take their own life, driven not by impulse, but nevertheless by their mental disorder – which includes Assange, his lawyers argue.

All of the psychiatrists who evaluated Assange determined he suffers from depression and is at risk of suicide, just to varying degrees. Kopelman says that Assange lacks the capacity to resist the impulse to commit suicide. The prosecution however, sought again to discredit his expertise, saying he relied too much on the “self-reporting” of Assange – apparently unaware that this is a common practice in psychiatry.

Assange was diagnosed with Asperger’s, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) – which, in combination with depression, is said to increase the risk of suicide, according to the testimony of the medical experts.

The prosecution sought to discredit the ASD diagnosis, on the grounds that only one out of five doctors diagnosed Assange as autistic: Dr Deeley, a leading expert in the field.

In discrediting the ASD diagnosis, they would minimize the risk of suicide.

According to lead prosecutor James Lewis, who is not a doctor, Assange cannot be suffering from serious mental illness, because he once requested “milk and oranges.” (He actually said that). Lewis also points to Assange reading the British Medical Journal as a “factor” that should be taken into consideration, suggesting he might possibly be faking his illness.

Diplomatic Assurances

Previously, District Judge Baraitser found American prisons to be too inhumane. She ruled that, if extradited, Assange would be likely to take his own life.

To satisfy these concerns, the US has recently offered not to place Assange under some of its more horrific prison conditions – Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) – and not to send the WikiLeaks founder to one of America’s worst prisons: ADX Florence. It is very likely Assange will be sent to ADX Florence, which former warden Robert Hood described as “worse than death.”  Additionally, the US also claims Assange can serve out any potential sentence in Australia.

According to the United States, the defense’s fears are predicated on the imposition of SAMs and ADX Florence and that, with these diplomatic assurances, there is no reason to block extradition. The prosecutors claim that with these assurances, she would have extradited Assange.

So why didn’t the US offer them before? Especially when they say it’s permissible to do at any stage in the process? Because the United States lost its extradition battle in January, and is now trying to rerun the case differently, claiming there won’t be any SAMs or ADX. But this is not true.

Not only are SAMs and ADX practically guaranteed for Assange, but the United States explicitly stated in court that it reserves the right to put him in either if he “threatens” national security – which means they will, as the entire indictment is built on the same false premise.

During the extradition hearing in September 2020, the US made it clear that SAMs are possible for Assange, and went to great lengths to portray them as “okay.” On Thursday, Lewis told the High Court judges that SAMs are not that bad, because Assange would be afforded such luxuries as playing crochet, poetry, or ‘self-recreation’ (whatever that means).

The reality is that under SAMs, Assange would be placed in 24-hour isolation. The only human interaction he would have is when the guards come to inspect the cell or give him food through the door slot. His conversations with his lawyers would be monitored and recorded. Assange’s lawyers pointed to testimony by Maureen Baird, former warden at Metropolitan Correctional Centre (MCC), who testified at Assange’s extradition hearing, countering all the United States’ arguments about SAMs. She also said there hadn’t been a single suicide at MCC in 13 years, until Jeffrey Epstein in 2019.

Even if Assange could avoid SAMs (extremely unlikely), he would still be put in administrative segregation (ad seg). Ad seg is essentially “SAMs, but without restrictions on communication,” as his lawyer Mark Summers put it. The US claims inmates can communicate with each other "seemingly through the plumbing.”

Assange could be placed under SAMs at the discretion of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) – the same intelligence agency that was contemplating, if not plotting, to potentially kidnap, poison, render, or assassinate Assange, his lawyer Summers explained to the judges.

How can anyone trust Assange won’t be put under SAMs the moment he sets foot in the US, when that decision is up to the agency whose crimes he exposed, and which had discussed plans to potentially kill him?

At this point, we saw the Yahoo! News investigation brought up in court for the first time, where 30 US officials confirmed discussions at the CIA around maybe kidnapping or poisoning Assange. This confirmed what we already knew from the former employees of UC Global, contracted by the CIA to spy on Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy. I heard their anonymous witness testimony in court at the Old Bailey, while I sat next to former Ecuadorian consul Fidel Narvaez, who knew of this only too well. Summers added that this was even confirmed by former CIA director Mike Pompeo.

Even if Assange could somehow avoid ADX, the United States has a large selection of other hell-holes they could send him to, designed to isolate him – isolation which would drive him to suicide, as doctors warned.

The United States could put Assange in a Communications Management Unit (CMU), where drone whistleblower Daniel Hale was sent in July, or, a Special Housing Unit (SHU) “designed to isolate prisoners from each other and the outside world.”

The way these “assurances” are worded is very clever too. They bind the prosecutors to consent, but not the US Department of Justice – thereby making them worthless. The DoJ can just say it never made such promises.

Assange’s lawyers cited previous cases of people extradited to the US, expecting to receive medical or psychiatric placement, only to find themselves sent to ADX or denied medical care.

The American response was that the US never promised not to send Abu Hamza to ADX, only that he might not be sent there. Therefore, this wasn’t a breach of assurances. Lewis went on to insist that Assange is being given diplomatic assurances, which are “solemn undertakings given out at the highest order” and that “these are not dished out like Smarties.”

Prison in Australia. Something to look forward to?

Lewis said Assange “now knows he's not going to go to SAMs and ADX. That must reduce the suicidal ideology.” Lewis even called prison in Australia something that Assange could “look forward to” – as if being imprisoned in one’s home country is something every journalist looks forward to.

Australia, for its part, has not even indicated it would take Assange at all, never mind in ten years – which is how long this process could take.

While January’s outcome was positive, we are now seeing why Baraitser’s ruling was insufficient and problematic: it still criminalizes journalism, and now the whole trial has become about Assange’s health, and worthless assurances from the US.

The United States is pretending that Assange is in good health, after wearing him down for a decade. I saw Assange briefly: he wore a white shirt, black tie, sat with his elbows on the table and one hand over his face. He did not look well.

As he winces in pain, lawyers are arguing over whether he is at moderate or high risk of suicide – but why is he suicidal in the first place? Who has been persecuting him for ten years for publishing materials in the public interest? Who said he must choose between being imprisoned in Australia or America, as he sits in an English prison? None of these options are acceptable.

Worse, absent from all this is any discussion about free speech, freedom of the press, or First Amendment rights. The United States has put Julian Assange’s mental health on trial, while the war criminals escaped out the back.

British courts should not be complicit in extra-territorializing US law, and sending an Australian journalist to his death in a foreign country, to which he owes nothing. Assange won his case in January. He is guilty of no crime. If this is really about justice, he must be set free immediately.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.