WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, while detained in the Belmarsh high-security prison in London. This likely increases Assange’s risk of suicide if confined in restrictive prison conditions in the United States, according to a psychiatrist who testified at his extradition trial.
Dr. Quinton Deeley, who works for the National Health Service (NHS), conducted an Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) test on Assange and produced a report. He interviewed Assange for six hours in July.
Assange told Deeley he feared he would be held in isolation in a U.S. prison. He was afraid of the fresh indictment. He was also concerned about the fate of Joshua Schulte, who was held in harsh confinement conditions prior to his trial for allegedly disclosing the “Vault 7” materials to WikiLeaks. (Schulte’s case resulted in a mistrial in March.)
The U.S. Justice Department charged Assange with 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act and one count of conspiracy to commit a computer crime that, as alleged in the indictment, is written like an Espionage Act offense.
The charges criminalize the act of merely receiving classified information, as well as the publication of state secrets from the U.S. government. It targets common practices in newsgathering, which is why the case is widely opposed by press freedom organizations throughout the world.
In the cases of Lauri Love and Gary McKinnon, the U.S. government was blocked from extraditing them because the United Kingdom High Court of Justice (Love) and the British Home Secretary (McKinnon) recognized their Asperger’s syndrome would result in degrading or inhuman treatment that violated human rights.
Love was accused of hacking into systems controlled by the Federal Reserve, U.S. Army, and a number of other government agencies. McKinnon was accused by the U.S. government of the “biggest military computer hack of all time.”
Edward Fitzgerald represented Love, and he is part of Assange’s legal team, and the arguments against extradition that Fitizgerald put forward in Love’s case are nearly identical to the arguments in this case.
(1) The mere fact of extradition and detention in the United States would be likely to lead to a serious deterioration in the mental health of Mr. Love
(2) To the extent that suicide was prevented by Mr. Love being placed on suicide watch, the conditions in which he would be held on suicide watch, or in segregation, would lead to a serious and permanent deterioration in his mental health, which was also related to his physical health
Based upon the diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, if extradited, Deeley determined Assange’s risk of suicide would be high under the circumstances. He “ruminates about prospective circumstances at length,” and it causes a “sense of horror.”
“He would find it an unbearable ordeal, and I think his inability to bear that in the context of [an] acute worsening depression would confer high risk of suicide,” Deeley added.
Assange views his predicament as “unjust” and an “intolerable ordeal,” according to Deeley. He believes an “example is being made out of him,” which “compounds his sense of its unbearability.” That greatly increases the suicide risk.
Rates of suicide are higher for someone on the autism spectrum. A person with Asperger’s syndrome obsesses and ruminates on their circumstances, which could result in him trying to end his life.
James Lewis, the lead prosecutor for the Crown Prosecution Authority, which represents the U.S. government in this case, went after Deeley and attempted to discredit his diagnosis. He said Assange has written books, given speeches, and hosted a “chat show” for RT. Plus, no other psychiatrist who saw Assange diagnosed him with Asperger’s syndrome.
“It’s possible to both have a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome and to demonstrate expertise and be authoritative and knowledgeable when talking about certain topics,” Deeley replied.
The prosecution played clips of a panel discussion at the Frontline Club in London, which occurred in August 2010. Assange participated in a Q&A session, and Lewis maintained someone with Asperger’s syndrome would not be able to handle this setting well.
But Deeley contended this was not unusual for “high-functioning intelligent people on the autism spectrum.” The panel was a specified format that fit into his knowledge. Assange was able to “monologue” and play a role that he was familiar with as the editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks.
He highlighted the example of Dr. Temple Grandin, who is well-known for speaking about her autism. She is able to give compelling talks about her experiences and even joke and hold an audience. But after events, it is harder for her to engage in face-to-face interactions with attendees.
The clips did not work on Deeley so Lewis lashed out. “Are you trying to help this court or advocate a cause?”
Seena Fazel, a forensic psychiatry professor at Oxford University, took the stand as a prosecution witness. He did not determine Assange had Asperger’s syndrome.
However, Fazel conducted a clinical exam that was more focused on other aspects of Assange’s mental health. He could only say he found Assange had “autistic-like traits.”
After reading Fazel a list of amenities and programs that would be available to prisoners at ADX Florence, a supermax prison in Colorado, Lewis asked Fazel how that would reduce Assange’s risk of suicide.
Fazel said it seemed like there are a “range of activities” that the Bureau of Prisons offer to reduce risk, but he would need to see information on “whether they’re implemented in practice” and the “quality of the interventions.”
Lewis asked no follow-up question because Fazel is not an expert on the U.S. federal prison system, and the answer he provided was more in line with the defense’s arguments than the prosecution’s case.
As the defense puts it, Assange is “an extremely vulnerable person with a long history of clinical depression, a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, and an established risk of suicide.” Detention in pretrial or post-trial conditions that amounted to solitary confinement would be the “height of inhumanity.”
Assange would be less capable of managing his Asperger’s syndrome in a U.S. prison. And if he was put on suicide watch in segregation—as the High Court acknowledged in Love’s case—both the Asperger’s syndrome and depression would worsen. He would not receive anything resembling adequate treatment.
The High Court called attention to the fact that Love would be vulnerable and likely be the target of bullying and intimidation by other prisoners if he was not in segregation. That would put pressure on prison authorities to segregate Assange for his protection.
“[Love] would have no support network available in prison in the United States,” the High Court declared.
That would apply to Assange, who would be confined several time zones away from his partner Stella Morris, two children, and family and friends who have attended his extradition trial.
When it came to McKinnon, May examined the “legal question” of whether his Asperger’s syndrome was “sufficient” to prevent extradition.
She concluded that “Mr McKinnon’s extradition would give rise to such a high risk of him ending his life that a decision to extradite would be incompatible with Mr McKinnon’s human rights.”
It is certainly possible for Judge Vanessa Baraitser to downplay the diagnosis by Deeley and authorize extradition. But there are two very clear precedents in U.K. history that should heavily influence the outcome and discourage her from sending Assange to a facility where he will suffer further abuse.