LONDON – A British court denied bail on Wednesday to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is fighting extradition to the United States, after his attorneys expressed concern that he would be at particular risk if he contracted the novel coronavirus behind bars.
Judge Vanessa Baraitser of the Westminster Magistrates Court rejected the lawyers’ argument that their client could easily become infected with the virus at London’s Belmarsh Prison and that his life would be at risk in the event of contagion due to his poor health after eight years of confinement.
That request was made after the British government said it planned to temporarily release some inmates in a bid to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in the country’s prison system.
In issuing her ruling, the district judge said she had no reason to doubt the effectiveness of the measures Belmarsh has adopted to combat the coronavirus and said the 48-year-old Australian is not the only inmate at risk from the pandemic.
She accepted the argument of Clair Dobbin, the attorney representing US authorities, who said Assange poses a flight risk and will not come back and attend his extradition hearing if he is released.
Dobbin also argued that the WikiLeaks founder was not among the demographic group (people 60 years or older) for whom the virus poses a particularly serious risk.
But Assange’s attorney, Edward Fitzgerald, said his client suffers from mental health issues and a pulmonary disease that would make him especially vulnerable to COVID-19, an argument supported by written medical testimony.
Assange is behind bars at Belmarsh Prison while awaiting the conclusion of his extradition process.
He is wanted in the US on an 18-count indictment, including violations of the Espionage Act, for “offenses that relate to Assange’s alleged role in one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States,” the US Department of Justice said in a statement in May 2019.
If found guilty on each of the 18 counts, Assange could be sentenced to as much as 180 years behind bars.
Assange had initially been charged in April 2019 with violating cyber security laws in 2009 and 2010 to assist then-US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in gaining access to classified information intended for publication by WikiLeaks.
Conviction on that charge would have entailed a maximum prison sentence of five years.
WikiLeaks said last May in response to the superseding indictment that it “is the end of national security journalism and the first amendment,” a reference to the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which enshrines freedom of the press.
At her 2013 court martial, Manning admitted having provided WikiLeaks with 700,000 battlefield reports and diplomatic cables as well as video of a 2007 US helicopter attack in Iraq.
The video and military reports pertained to US actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, while the State Department cables offered a window into Washington’s relations with a wide range of countries.
In the wake of the initial batch of Afghan and Iraq war revelations in 2010, US officials said that the disclosures posed “great risks” to people identified in the documents as collaborating with Washington, but the Defense Department subsequently said that it knew of no deaths that could be attributed to WikiLeaks.
Assange sought refuge at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in June 2012 after losing a long battle in the British courts to avoid extradition to Sweden to face accusations of sexual misconduct.
The Australian, who has consistently denied the accusations, said he feared that once in Swedish custody US prosecutors would indict him for espionage and Washington would pressure Stockholm into handing him over.
Quito eventually granted Assange Ecuadorian citizenship, but a change of government in the South American nation resulted on April 11, 2019, in his expulsion from the mission.
He was due to be released from prison on Sept. 22, 2019, after serving a sentence for breaching his bail conditions to avoid extradition to Sweden.
But Baraiser ruled on Sept. 13, 2019, that he would have to remain behind bars after that prison term ended because there were “substantial grounds” to believe he would abscond once again ahead of his extradition trial, which began in late February.