In January this year, when a British judge refused to allow Julian Assange’s extradition to the US, to face espionage charges — and a potential 175-year sentence — for the work of WikiLeaks in helping to expose US war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the groundless basis of most of the US’s supposed reasons for holding men indefinitely without charge or trial at Guantánamo, the US government should have backed down and allowed him to be freed to be reunited with his family.
Judge Vanessa Baraitser’s ruling, sadly, avoided the heart of the case — whether publishing damaging material in the public interest is a crime (which it isn’t, and mustn’t be allowed to be, if freedom of the press is to mean anything) — but homed in unerringly on the considered opinion of a psychiatrist that, if transferred to a maximum-security prison in the US, awaiting trial, Assange, because of his mental health issues, would take his own life.
The ruling was a valid condemnation both of the brutality of the US prison system in general, and of its particular unsuitability for those with mental health issues, and it was a vivid reminder that, back in October 2012, Theresa May, when she was home secretary, had refused to allow the extradition to the US of Gary McKinnon, a hacker with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, on the very same basis, and that the extradition of Lauri Love, another hacker with Asperger’s, had been refused by two High Court judges in February 2018.
Over the years, the fact that Assange also exhibited signs of Asperger’s had largely been ignored as a picture was created instead of some sort of uniquely arrogant individual, even though, when I met him in April 2011, to work as a media partner on WikiLeaks’ release of classified military files from Guantánamo, it had appeared obvious to me that he had Asperger’s.
It was some relief, therefore, when, during his extradition hearing last October (at which I submitted evidence about the importance of the release of those files), Dr. Quinton Deeley, a consultant neuropsychiatrist, “diagnosed Assange with Asperger’s syndrome after witnessing a two-hour autism assessment and conducting six hours of phone calls with [him] in Belmarsh prison”, as the Press Gazette explained at the time.
Giving evidence, Dr. Deeley said, “To my mind, it’s clear Mr. Assange presents as a person with an autistic spectrum condition.” As the Press Gazette noted, “He described Assange as ‘an intelligent person’ who shares the characteristics of ‘many high-functioning people on the autistic spectrum’, including engineers and computer scientists.” He also said that “he has ‘difficulty discussing his own emotions’, with a ‘primary focus on his own thoughts and interests’ and noted a ‘failure to initiate or sustain’ conversations.”
Instead of accepting Judge Baraitser’s ruling, however, as one administration — that of Donald Trump — seamlessly gave way to another, that of Joe Biden, the extradition request remained firmly in place, and the US government set about working out how to appeal Judge Baraitser’s ruling.
The approach taken resembles that of an abuser who has been caught out and responds by pledging to change their ways, even though such promises are profoundly untrustworthy. The US authorities have promised that, if extradited, Assange will “not be held before trial in a top security ‘Supermax’ prison or subjected to strict isolation conditions”, as the Guardian described it, and have also promised that, “if convicted [he] would be allowed to serve his sentence in Australia.”
James Lewis, the barrister representing the US government, told the High Court that the assurances “are binding on the United States”, even though that is untrue, as no mechanism exists whereby any government, court or any other organization outside the US can challenge the US government if they fail to honour their assurances. In addition, the US government has also carefully reserved the right to alter these assurances if Assange “commit[s] a further offence”, as the BBC described it, with no sign of what “a further offence” might mean.
As for the Australia promise, Assange’s barrister Edward Fitzgerald “said in a written submission [that] Australia had not yet agreed to take Assange if he was convicted”, and added that, “[e]ven if Australia did agree”, the US legal process “could take a decade, ‘during which Mr Assange will remain detained in extreme isolation in a US prison.’”
The US also took aim at the testimony provided last autumn by neuropsychiatrist Michael Kopelman, who had flagged up Assange’s suicide risk, but had, as the Guardian described the position taken by the US, “misled the previous judge by omitting to mention that Stella Moris, a member of WikiLeaks’ legal team, was also Assange’s partner and had two children with him.”
To my mind, the fact that Assange would be thoroughly separated from his partner and children rather tends to reinforce the notion that he would be a high suicide risk if extradited to the US, but then what do I know, as I’m not the abuser saying whatever it takes to get Assange into my grubby and punitive hands.
Assange also has other reasons not to trust a word the US government says. In summer, it was revealed that, as the Guardian described it, “Sigurdur Thordarson, who was a teenage worker at WikiLeaks before becoming an FBI informant, broke cover … when an Icelandic news website, Stundin, reported that he had ‘fabricated’ evidence cited by the US.”
As the Guardian proceeded to explain, Thordarson, “who has a series of convictions for sexual and financial crimes in Iceland”, received “a promise of immunity from prosecution in return for co-operating with the FBI”, but “has since told the Guardian that his participation with US authorities was borne ‘out of fear’ because he knew that charges were ready to be filed against him over hacking allegations.”
“I was not expecting that the indictment from the US … would make a major mistake like this. If this helps Julian to be freed from prosecution … furthermore the extradition, then I’m very happy that would help,” he said.
Even more alarmingly, Yahoo News reported last month that, in 2017, the Trump administration —led by a president so incoherent that, at one point, he had lavishly praised WikiLeaks — had “plotted to kidnap the WikiLeaks founder, spurring heated debate among Trump administration officials over the legality and practicality of such an operation.”
As the article explained, “Some senior officials inside the CIA and the Trump administration even discussed killing Assange, going so far as to request ‘sketches’ or ‘options’ for how to assassinate him. Discussions over kidnapping or killing Assange occurred ‘at the highest levels’ of the Trump administration, said a former senior counterintelligence official. ‘There seemed to be no boundaries.’”
And if this sounds outlandish, it may be instructive to note that, when I was working with WikiLeaks on the release of the Guantánamo files in April 2011, the Daily Telegraph, which had replaced the Guardian as WikiLeaks’ main UK media partner, and had also taken over sponsorship from the Guardian of the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts, got very excited about putting him on as a speaker. As Assange was, at the time, under house arrest in Norfolk, they proposed flying him there and back by helicopter to avoid breaking his curfew, to which Assange responded by stating that his lawyers had advised him never to travel by helicopter, because they were the easiest vehicle to sabotage.
It may be that, at the time, Assange was paranoid, but, as last month’s revelations show, evidence exists that, at least under Donald Trump, the US government was considering how to murder him. The figureheads may have changed, but the entities responsible are still part of the US government. How can they be trusted with Julian Assange’s health if his extradition goes ahead, and how can the British authorities ignore the reality of his Asperger’s diagnosis, and not insist that his proposed extradition, like those of Gary McKinnon and Lauri Love, must be denied?