A court in London ruled on January 4 that, while the US government had "made its case" for the extradition of Julian Assange, the Wikileaks co-founder would not be sent to the United States to stand trial because he was "likely to kill himself if held under harsh US prison conditions." British judge Vanessa Baraitser rejected Assange's attorney's contentions that the US prosecution was politically-motivated. But she called Assange "a depressed and sometimes despairing man" who had the "intellect and determination" to circumvent whatever suicide prevention measures US authorities might implement. Assange has been held in the maximum-security Belmarsh Prison for more than 18 months awaiting the ruling.
The decision raises several different issues. First, it was narrowly defined on two points. The British government in the past has refused to extradite prisoners to the United States because the US practice of solitary confinement constitutes torture, according to Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur for Torture. That was not the reason the judge decided to use in denying Assange's extradition. It had nothing to do with solitary confinement or torture. It had to do with suicide. Second, the judge said that the US had "made its case" for Assange to be charged with espionage. But it hadn't made a case. It argued only that Assange had "provided national defense information to any person not entitled to receive it," a precedent set in my own case in the notorious Eastern District of Virginia, where Assange also has been charged. This is not generally-accepted law and has never been ruled on by an appeals court. But it is the definition used by the British judge.
The Justice Department has two weeks to appeal the decision and prosecutors have indicated that they would do so. The judge in the meantime is refusing to release Assange, and an appeal won't be scheduled for another two or three months. But that appeal will be solely over the issue of whether or not the US federal prison system's use of solitary confinement and administrative segregation units is humane and within the letter and spirit of international law and whether the way US prisons are run does not encourage suicide. That's a losing argument. I'm no expert on the British appellate process, but I can tell you about solitary confinement in the United States, and I can confirm that it is indeed a form of torture and that people in US prisons commit suicide literally every single day.
The solitary confinement that Julian Assange would have faced at the "Supermax" federal penitentiary in Florence, Colorado (ADX Florence) is hell on earth. There is no human contact for prisoners. The prisoner is kept alone in a seven-foot by eleven-foot cell for 23 hours a day. On five of those days, he is allowed to walk through a small door at the back of the cell that leads into an outdoor seven-foot by eleven-foot cage, where he can walk in circles for an hour. On the remaining two days, he's allowed a brief shower. Visitors are limited solely to the prisoner's attorneys, and those meetings are through thick glass and with the use of a telephone intercom. The prisoner is allowed to write one letter per week, up to three pages long, but it can be sent only to attorneys or to immediate family members pre-approved by the Bureau of Prisons. All outgoing mail is censored by an FBI agent. Letters can be received, but not physically. Each cell has a computer monitor mounted along the ceiling, out of reach. When a prisoner receives a letter, its text is put on the monitor for five minutes so that the prisoner can read it. It is then deleted. Doors are opened and closed electronically. Prisoners speak with guards only through intercoms. Again, there is no human contact.
Imagine living like this for years at a time. And remember that the United Nations has deemed treatment like this for more than two weeks as a form of torture. The New York Times in 2016 wrote about ADX Florence and the US Penitentiary at Pelican Bay, California. It noted that some prisoners were so desperate for human contact that one ate the glass of a broken window just so that he could injure himself enough to be taken to a doctor. That prisoner said that he had not spoken to another human being in years. He couldn't even remember the last time. One prisoner, when he came into only momentary contact with another prisoner, killed him so that he could get the death penalty, which he said was more humane than solitary confinement.
As things stand, and as they're likely to play out, Julian Assange won't be subject to this kind of sick treatment. It was a close call. But freedom is in view. The Mexican government has offered Julian asylum. In the meantime, it's up to the rest of us to make sure that the world doesn't forget how the US treats its prisoners and what the inhumanity of our system looks like.
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