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According to a report Wednesday in The Daily Maverick, imprisoned WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange is one of only two prisoners of 797 inmates in Belmarsh Prison who are being held for skipping bail. The majority are violent criminals, including 20 percent for murder and 16 inmates on terrorism offenses. The facility was also repeatedly criticized by prison inspectors for a lapse in preventing infections to inmates. Following Judge Vanessa Baraitser's decision to deny Assange bail last week, Doctors4 Assange released the following statement:
Doctors4Assange Statement on Assange
Bail Hearing over Coronavirus Risk
March 27, 2020
Doctors4Assange strongly condemns last 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.
As the court heard, Mr Assange is at increased risk of contracting and dying from the novel disease coronavirus (COVID-19), a development which has led the World Health Organization to declare a public health emergency of international concern and a global pandemic. The reasons for Mr Assange's increased risk include his ongoing psychological torture, his history of medical neglect and fragile health, and chronic lung disease.
Edward Fitzgerald, QC, representing Mr Assange, said, "These [medical] experts consider that he is particularly at risk of developing coronavirus and, if he does, that it develops into very severe complications for him" If he does develop critical symptoms it would be very doubtful that Belmarsh would be able to cope with his condition."
Baraitser's casual dismissal of Mr Assange's dire situation in the face of the COVID-19 emergency stood in stark contrast not only to the expert medical evidence, but the proceedings themselves. The hearing took place on the third day of the UK's coronavirus lock-down. Of the two counsels representing Mr Assange, Edward Fitzgerald QC wore a facemask and Mark Summers QC participated via audiolink. US attorneys joined the proceedings by phone.
Mr Assange himself appeared by videolink, which was terminated after around an hour, rendering him unable to follow the remainder of his own hearing, including the defense summation and the District Judge's ruling. Mr Assange's supporters attending in person observed social distancing measures. Overall only 15 people were in attendance, including judge, counsel, and observers.
Baraitser further erred by stating that because no prisoners at HMP Belmarsh currently have coronavirus, Assange was not yet at risk. Mr Assange's counsel noted, in contrast, that they had difficulty visiting him after being told by Belmarsh staff that over 100 Belmarsh employees are currently "self-isolating." Furthermore, it is unclear whether any Belmarsh prisoners have even been tested for coronavirus.
Baraitser's assurance that government measures were adequate to protect Mr Assange also rang hollow on the very day the UK government announced that Prince Charles tested positive for COVID-19. If the UK government cannot protect its own royal family from the disease, how can it adequately protect its most vulnerable prisoners in prisons, which have been described as "breeding grounds" for coronavirus?
Furthermore, news emerged on the day of the hearing that 19 prisoners in 10 prisons across the UK had tested positive for coronavirus, an increase of six prisoners in 24 hours. From the time of the hearing to date, two UK inmates have died from COVID-19, both of whom, like Assange, are men in high risk groups.
This news, and the decision to deny Mr Assange bail, is alarming in light of numerous statements and reports that have called out the risk to prisoners, urgently recommending release of non-violent prisoners, as well as actions taken by other nations to alleviate the risk.
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