Within days, Wikileaks boss Julian Assange could be chained at a British airfield preparing to board a plane bound for the United States. Once he disembarks and the soundproof door of a maximum-security prison cell closes behind him, the man who has become America’s most wanted will, finally, be silenced.
Lawyers fear the 52-year-old could be confined alone in a “concrete coffin,” a 12-foot by 7-foot chamber, with a window 3 feet high but only four inches wide, designed to ensure that the prisoner has no other view than the sky or the wall. . Inside him, his bed, his desk, and his stool will also be poured concrete.
Under this regime, meals pass through a slot in the door and inmates use a stainless steel sink, toilet and shower inside their cell, meaning they do not even leave to eat or wash.
Once every 24 hours, they are allowed out for an hour to exercise in a small, individually caged, often sunken space, like an empty swimming pool, to prevent them from becoming oriented within the prison complex.
A ‘supermax’ prison in the United States like the one where Assange could be held
Julian Assange is wanted in the United States to stand trial on 17 charges under the Espionage Act and one count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion.
A class-action lawsuit filed in 2012 against the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons revealed how a sentence in such facilities tests the sanity of the toughest inmates. “They scream, scream, and bang endlessly on the walls of their cells.” Some mutilate their bodies with knives, shards of glass, sharp chicken bones, writing utensils, and any other objects they can get their hands on. Several swallow razor blades, nail clippers, parts of radios and televisions, broken glass and other dangerous objects.”
Safety is, of course, paramount. Both prisoners and their cells, which are constantly monitored by security cameras, are frequently searched. Outside, 12-foot-high walls topped with barbed wire, guard towers with turrets, searchlights, motion sensors and canine patrols mean the chance of escape is minimal.
Most notorious of all is ADX Florence, an institution in Colorado nicknamed the Alcatraz of the Rocky Mountains, which was memorably described by a former director as “a clean version of hell.”
It was the possibility of Assange being buried there, under so-called special administrative measures (solitary confinement and the most severe restrictions), that temporarily stopped his extradition back in 2020.
Now it is back and on its way out after two climactic days of hearings at London’s High Court this week.
Two judges, Dame Victoria Sharpe and Justice Johnson, yesterday reserved their ruling pending further submissions from both sides. They are expected to rule on whether the extradition, originally agreed by former home secretary Priti Patel in 2022, can go ahead, or whether Assange is entitled to another appeal, sometime next month.
Assange’s wife, Stella (center), is the mother of his children, Gabriel, six, and Max, five.
If he loses, his lawyers could try to take his case to the European Court of Human Rights. However, in theory, it would be possible for the British Government to facilitate his surrender to the United States before the ECHR can order a stay of his extradition.
Assange is wanted in the United States to stand trial on 17 charges under the Espionage Act and one count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion for publishing hundreds of thousands of confidential military documents and exposing multiple atrocities committed by the U.S. military during the course of the conflicts in Iraq. and Afghanistan. .
If convicted, he could face up to 175 years in prison, “a living death sentence,” according to his wife Stella, mother of his two youngest children, Gabriel, six, and Max, five.
“It would be catastrophic,” he said yesterday. ‘Our children are British, they are at school, their stability is here. Our contact with Julian would be severely restricted, potentially to a 15-minute call once a month. He would face barbaric conditions even before the trial. He will not survive extradition to suffer this type of torture.
This is the first time that the 1917 Act has been used against an editor or journalist, making the Assange case a litmus test of press freedom in the 21st century.
The publisher’s supporters also believe it raises serious questions about British sovereignty. His prosecution, they say, is politically motivated and should therefore not be subject to the terms of the extradition treaty between the United Kingdom and the United States.
Currently, Britain acts only as the Americans’ jailer and holds Assange in the maximum security Belmarsh prison in London. He was locked up there in 2019 after spending seven years in the Ecuadorian Embassy, where the country’s then-leftist president, Rafael Correa, had granted him asylum.
(He entered the embassy in 2012 after being accused of sexual crimes, including rape, by two women in Sweden. He denied the accusations and always believed that the attempt to prosecute him in Stockholm was part of a US plot to ensure prompt extradition. Swedish prosecutors dropped the case for the third time in 2019).
I was the first journalist invited to the embassy for an interview to mark its first 100 days inside. I would return several times over the years, and when Assange and Stella wanted to reveal their engagement and the existence of their two secret children, they asked me to tell the story.
Supporters of Julian Assange protest against his extradition to the United States at the Royal Courts of Justice in London
The day I met him in 2012, he was wearing an embroidered Ecuadorian shirt and eating a celebratory lunch of ceviche (raw fish cured with lemon juice and chili) with embassy staff. He compared his life to living on a space station and joked that bookmaker Paddy Power was offering 100-to-1 odds on him escaping with a jetpack, like a Bond villain. But his world was already closing.
When I went to see him before the second anniversary of his asylum in 2014, it was clear that life was becoming more difficult for him. He had grown a snowy beard to help people mark the passage of time, he said, but beneath it he looked pale and tired.
By then his distance vision was failing, he had chronic lung disease aggravated by constant air conditioning, heart problems and high blood pressure. She had installed a blue sky lamp, which shined on the ceiling and ran on a timer. “Like a chicken in a battery,” she said. She longed to see the sun and feel the grass under her feet, “but here I can’t even keep a potted plant alive.”
When Metropolitan Police officers finally dragged him away in 2019, Assange looked wild-eyed, desperate and disheveled. The extraordinary television images that captured the moment were beneficial to the White House and the CIA because they kept the world firmly focused on a polarizing individual, not on the principles of free speech and British sovereignty.
He bore little resemblance to the cyber-world superstar who once told me how, in an attempt to stop looking so pale under his ice-white hair during embassy appearances, he had attempted to tan his face with an ultraviolet lamp. He had grown beetroot and had to borrow a friend’s makeup “so as not to look like a Chernobyl victim,” he said, laughing at himself and his peculiar new circumstances.
In Belmarsh, he is locked in a 9 square meter cell for up to 23 hours a day. During a cold spell, he was forced to boil the kettle continuously to keep warm. They have given him a ‘computer’ but without Internet access and with most of the keyboard glued on. His only interaction with nature has been his practice of feeding breadcrumbs to a pair of mallard ducks that nest under his window.
While inside, he suffered a stroke and married Stella. Aside from that, they might as well have shot him with a Taser, given how incapacitated he was.
During one of our first interviews at the embassy, I asked him how he would like to be remembered. He said: ‘I wouldn’t do it. It is more important to do things than to be remembered for having done them.’
For the past five years his only achievement has been survival and now, Stella believes, the next step, extradition, will kill him.
The United States has countered global fears about Assange’s inhumane treatment with diplomatic assurances that he would not be held at ADX Florence or subjected to special administrative measures. However, as she warned that she reserved the right to retract these assurances in the future, the UN special rapporteur on torture, Alice Jill Edwards, joined Stella in speaking in alarm from Geneva.
The need for an extradition treaty between allied and friendly nations cannot be discussed. But this case is about American hegemony and Wikileaks reveals hundreds of thousands of America’s dirty secrets. As the court heard from Mark Summers KC on Tuesday, the United States has a history of “preparing to use criminal proceedings as a means of retaliation.”
It was in 2010-2011 when Wikileaks published online 700,000 documents provided by US defense intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. The cache of material exposed war crimes, torture and murder, including images of the sights of the American Crazy Horse 1-8 Apache helicopter that killed 11 people, civilians and journalists, in Baghdad in July 2007. The order to kill was heard on camera, ‘Light “All Up,” sparked carnage and caused global outrage.
The United States wants to lock up a ‘supervillain’. But Assange is not the person who committed those crimes and he should not be the one facing the possibility of life behind bars.