A pair of recent developments has shown how multifaceted and complex the case against Julian Assange is.
On May 31, 2019, Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, declared that Assange’s extradition to the U.S. would prove a serious threat to his human rights. According to Melzer, Assange is currently experiencing symptoms of “prolonged exposure to psychological torture,” which include extreme stress, severe anxiety, and fierce psychological trauma. In line with this, Assange’s lawyer suggested that Assange missed a set court appearance because of his health. Additional sources have also stated that Assange has lost a serious amount of weight, and that it is nearly impossible to hold a simple conversation with him.
“In 20 years of work with victims of war, violence and political persecution,” Melzer noted in a statement, “I have never seen a group of democratic states ganging up to deliberately isolate, demonise and abuse a single individual for such a long time and with so little regard for human dignity and the rule of law.” Melzer has cited a specific instance in which Assange may receive, if extradited to the U.S. and faced with additional charges, a life sentence without the possibility of parole, or even the death penalty.
Melzer is not the only official to protest Assange’s treatment. On May 3, 2019, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention – a wing of the Human Rights Council – condemned the British government for their excessive methods of incarcerating Assange. The body criticized the UK government for imposing a disproportionate sentence on Assange, noting that he was still detained for violating bail even though the bond related to the bail is no longer favored by the government. It also rebuked the government for incarcerating Assange in Belmarsh prison, a top-level security prison meant to host the most serious of criminal offenders.
According to the Washington Post, Assange is undergoing detention in Belmarsh not only because of its security status, but its close proximity to Westminster Magistrates’ Court, where the government is processing his extradition case. Additionally, Assange is not being held in the “Category A” wing of Belmarsh – which some have referred to as the “Guantanamo Bay” of the UK – but the “Category B” wing, which provides him an individual unit within a cell block of 70 inmates.
Though Assange’s treatment in Belmarsh is not Melzer’s greatest concern regarding the prisoner.
“There’s no chance he’ll get a fair trial in the U.S. That’s where I draw the line.”
Days after this development, a Swedish court announced that Assange should not be extradited to Sweden for the reopened rape investigation against him. The Uppsala District Court, which ruled on the case, declared that the case need not be abandoned. Instead, it noted that Swedish prosecutors, at this point, may only question Assange in the UK. Eva-Marie Persson, Sweden’s Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions, has instead pledged to issue a European Investigation Order, which would allow her to interview Assange in the UK. She may appeal the court’s decision as well.
These events at the UN and Sweden have added even more layers to a case that is already immensely complex. Since an extradition request by Sweden is off the table for now, the U.S. may have an easier time arguing their case in front of the UK, as they would be the only state pursuing his extradition at that time. However, statements made by officials like Melzer reveal the serious pressure on the UK around potentially extraditing Assange to the U.S. The U.S.’s decision to charge Assange with violating the Espionage Act has received sharp condemnation from media and the human rights community around the world, with many viewing such a move as an attack on free speech and free press. If the UK needed any less of a reason to extradite Assange to the U.S., Melzer’s findings may meet that criteria.
The U.S. must submit their official extradition request to the UK by June 11. Once that happens, who knows where the case will go, and what it will bring out.