We don’t know exactly what’s going on with Julian Assange’s health, but a growing band of doctors has called on the Australian government to negotiate his transfer out of a maximum-security British jail to a hospital in Australia.
The doctors claim that Assange, an Australian citizen, is subject to cruel and inhumane treatment, writing to top Australia’s minister of foreign affairs and other government officials: “Should Mr Assange die in a British prison, people will want to know what you, Minister, did to prevent his death.” We’ll likely hear more on how the WikiLeaks founder is looking on Thursday when he is scheduled to appear in court via video for a case management hearing.
Assange was arrested (dragged out of the Ecuadorian embassy in London by police) in April for skipping bail in 2010 in the United Kingdom, where he’d fled to evade arrest in Sweden, where he was accused of molestation and rape. (Assange, who lived in the Ecuadorian embassy under asylum for nearly seven years, maintained his innocence in the Swedish case, which authorities dropped last month.) He was sentenced to 50 weeks in prison and currently sits in Belmarsh, which has drawn comparisons to Guantanamo Bay for its indefinite unjustified holding of foreign nationals.
In February, Assange will appear for a hearing deliberating whether to extradite him to the U.S. The Department of Justice in May charged him with an 18-count indictment including “unlawfully obtaining and disclosing classified documents.”
Members in the now 100-plus-strong group of medical professionals who’ve dubbed themselves “Doctors for Assange” run the gamut from general practitioners to psychiatrists to surgeons and span the European Union, Asia, the United States, Australia, and Serbia. Last month, their first open letter called on the UK home secretary to move Assange from Belmarsh Prison to a university teaching hospital. They’ve since called on the UK lord chancellor and secretary of state for justice to heed their calls, to no avail.
Assange’s symptoms are somewhat vague, partly because he’s lacked hospital access. In 2015 and 2018, clinicians specializing in trauma concluded that his confinement in the Ecuadorian embassy posed a threat to his mental health. UK authorities have since limited prison visits. Doctors for Assange can speculate about his health from “harrowing eyewitness accounts” of his court appearances. In May, Assange’s attorney claimed he was too ill to appear via video, that Assange had “dramatically lost weight” since the embassy eviction, and that he was unable to carry on a normal conversation. Assange was subsequently moved to the prison healthcare unit, which doctors argue is unequipped to offer a diagnosis or proper treatment. Reuters described him as “confused” at an October hearing and reported that he had trouble remembering his name and birthdate.
Perhaps the most reliable report we can go on comes from the United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture, Professor Nils Melzer, who visited Assange in prison along with two medical experts trained to examine potential torture victims, and equated Assange’s public “vilification and abuse” to psychological torture. Melzer stated that “[i]n 20 years of work with victims of war, violence and political persecution 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.”
“We are reliably advised that it is a well-established principle of international law — and of Australian law recognised by its own courts — that if a country’s citizens face improper treatment, persecution, and human rights violations, they may be the subject of diplomatic action, at that sovereign power’s discretion, to protect its citizens abroad,” the doctors wrote. “The Australian government must exercise that discretion and request from Britain the safe passage of Mr Assange to Australia, to protect Mr Assange and the rights of all Australian citizens.”
Presumably, the doctors hope Assange would get more sympathetic treatment back home, where Australian MPs, journalists, and protesters have called for the UK to block his extradition to the U.S. While Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in April following Assange’s arrest that the WikiLeaks founder is “not going to be given any special treatment” past what any Australian citizen gets when facing trial abroad, he will get the customary “consular support.” Morrison said that there’s not much they can legally do, but Australians have worried that the U.S. might impose the death penalty, which Australia has banned.
Last week, Assange appeared via video for a hearing deciding to extend his prison stay. The full extradition hearing is scheduled to commence in February.