British Magistrate Court Judge Vanessa Baraitser denied WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s request for bail, despite calls for the release of detainees and prisoners to halt the spread of the coronavirus.
Assange is charged with 17 counts of violating the United States Espionage Act, and a computer crime offense, which contains language from the Espionage Act. He faces extradition to the United States and is currently detained at Her Majesty’s Prison Belmarsh.
Attorneys applied for bail because they believe Assange faces “imminent danger.” He suffers from a chronic lung condition, which makes him especially vulnerable to a coronavirus that severely affects anyone with respiratory ailments.
Marty Silk, an Australian correspondent, reported that Baraitser stated, “Mr. Assange’s past conduct shows the lengths he is prepared to go to avoid extradition proceedings. If I released him today, he would not return to face these extradition proceedings.”
“As matters stand today, this global pandemic does not, of itself, yet provide grounds for Mr. Assange’s release,” Baraitser asserted.
Despite the fact that Edward Fitzgerald, an attorney for Assange, was informed that 100 members of the Belmarsh staff were “sick” as a result of the coronavirus, Baraitser maintained the coronavirus is not a problem at the prison.
Fitzgerald, according to Silk, contended the fact that the coronavirus exists reduces Assange’s “risk of absconsion.”
The Don’t Extradite Assange campaign said “the judge refused to accept the offer of house arrest and electronic tagging” made by Fitzgerald.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms the decision today not to release Julian Assange on bail,” WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson responded. “It is unjust and inhumane in light of the crises we are now facing.”
“I urge everybody to protest this injustice, this grave injustice,” Hrafnsson added. “It was pathetic to listen today to the magistrate court judge relying on the prison authorities, relying on reports that there was no COVID-19 case inside Belmarsh prison while we know that more than 100 staff of Belmarsh are in isolation.”
On the same day Baraitser denied Assange’s bail request, Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, issued a statement urging governments to protect the health and safety of people in detention.
“Governments are facing huge demands on resources in this crisis and are having to take difficult decisions. But I urge them not to forget those behind bars, or those confined in places such as closed mental health facilities, nursing homes and orphanages, because the consequences of neglecting them are potentially catastrophic,” Bachelet declared.
Bachelet added, “It is vital that governments should address the situation of detained people in their crisis planning to protect detainees, staff, visitors, and of course, wider society.”
After Assange was expelled from the Ecuador embassy in April, nearly one year ago, British authorities convicted him of a charge of violating bail conditions when he sought asylum from Ecuador. He completed a 50-week sentence.
Baraitser’s statements about the supposed flight risk Assange poses reveal her contempt for the institution of political asylum, which is recognized by countries throughout the world as means of protecting the human rights of targeted dissidents.
The Prisoners’ Advice Service, an independent legal charity in Britain, recommended on March 16 that “people awaiting extradition” be released during the pandemic.
Andrea Albutt, head of the Prison Governors Association, previously advocated for the release of some prisoners to prevent disorder and slow the spread of the virus.
“Overcrowding, poor regime, reduced contact with family because we’re not having visits anymore – these are all things that can introduce instability,” Albutt told The Guardian. “If we can take one of them away, if we can reduce the level of overcrowding in our prisons, it will help towards the coming months.”
Her management of proceedings was in line with her ruling in February, when she denied Assange’s request to leave a glass box at the back of the courtroom and sit with his legal team.
“COVID-19 is bringing forth the best in people and the worst in people. Today’s decision by the judge was an example of the latter,” Hrafnsson concluded.