An open letter from doctors: Julian Assange could die in prison


From wsws.org, 24 November 2019:

The following letter was authored by more than 65 eminent medical doctors from the UK and around the world, calling for urgent action to protect the life of imprisoned WikiLeaks founder and journalist Julian Assange.

‘We write this open letter, as medical doctors, to express our serious concerns about the physical and mental health of Julian Assange. Our professional concerns follow publication recently of the harrowing eyewitness accounts of Craig Murray and John Pilger of the case management hearing on Monday 21 October 2019 at Westminster Magistrates Court. The hearing related to the upcoming February 2020 hearing of the request by the US government for Mr Assange’s extradition to the US in relation to his work as a publisher of information, including information about alleged crimes of the US government.
Our concerns were further heightened by the publication on 1 November 2019 of a further report of Nils Melzer, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, in which he stated: ‘Unless the UK urgently changes course and alleviates his inhumane situation, Mr Assange’s continued exposure to arbitrariness and abuse may soon end up costing his life.’

Having entered the Ecuadorian Embassy in London on 19 June 2012, Mr Assange sought and was granted political asylum by the Ecuadorian government. On 11 April 2019, he was removed from the Embassy and arrested by the Metropolitan Police. He was subsequently detained in Belmarsh maximum security prison, in what Mr Melzer described as ‘oppressive conditions of isolation and surveillance.’

During the seven years spent in the Embassy in confined living conditions, Mr Assange was visited and examined by a number of experts each of whom expressed alarm at the state of his health and requested that he be allowed access to a hospital. No such access was permitted. Mr Assange was unable to exercise his right to free and necessary expert medical assessment and treatment throughout the seven-year period.

A chronology, based on information available to the public, of relevant visits, events and reports from a medical perspective follows:’ [I’ll include some of the lengthy timeline]

  • On 31 July 2015, a dentist reported that Mr Assange’s ‘upper right first premolar (UR4) tooth had fractured along with the filling that was in it and the dental pulp of the tooth was exposed’ and ‘that failure to treat this promptly would lead to infection of the root leading to a dental abscess and pain.’ The dentist advised ‘saving this tooth would require root canal treatment’, however, ‘due to the specialised equipment and radiographic requirements this treatment could not be completed in the domiciliary setting.’ ‘Extraction of the tooth’ was identified as ‘another option but […] it may need a surgical extraction.’ This was ‘not recommended in a domiciliary setting especially as we would need preoperative radiographs to assess the root shape and the proximity of the root to the floor of the maxillary sinus. Extractions in this area carry a risk of creating a communication between the mouth and the sinus which could need surgical closure hence radiographs would be essential to assess this risk.’ The dentist ‘advised Mr Assange he should seek treatment in a clinical setting to prevent further progression of his symptoms as soon as possible.’ [1]

On 8 December 2015, a doctor who saw Mr Assange reported: ‘progressive inflammation and stiffness affecting his right shoulder. This requires an MRI scan to determine the exact diagnosis in order to inform a suitably qualified physiotherapist as to how best to treat him in an appropriately equipped medical facility. His current circumstances significantly compromise the ability to satisfactorily investigate and treat him.’ [3] Mr Assange was refused access to a hospital by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. [4]

  • On 11 December 2015, a further doctor, a trauma and psychosocial expert, reported: ‘Mr Assange scored 15 out of 20 on the Patient Health Questionnaire […] a multipurpose instrument for screening, diagnosing, monitoring and measuring the severity of depression. […] A score of 15 indicates that Mr Assange suffers from Major Depression (moderately severe)’; ‘At a minimum, it is recommended that his urgent medical complaints regarding the pain in his shoulder be investigated with appropriate equipment’; ‘The Embassy is not a medical setting. The only way Mr Assange can access either urgent medical care or investigations would be to place himself in the hands of the British authorities. Mr Assange is in an invidious position of having to decide between his physical health and the risk of being extradited to the United States. His inability to access proper medical care and assessment — without placing himself into the hands of the authorities — transforms each physical complaint no matter how simple into something that could have catastrophic consequences either for his health or his liberty. He lives in a state of chronic health insecurity’; and ‘The unusual circumstances place Mr Assange in a precarious situation. The effects of the situation on Mr Assange’s health and well-being are serious and the risks will most certainly escalate with the potential to becoming life threatening if current conditions persist.’ [5]
  • In October 2017, Doctors Sondra S. Crosby, Brock Chisholm and Sean Love visited Mr Assange. [6] The group examined him for 20 hours over three days. [7] In an article for the Guardian published on 24 January 2018 they wrote: ‘We examined Julian Assange, and he badly needs care — but he can’t get it’; ‘We call on the British Medical Association and colleagues in the UK to demand safe access to medical care for Mr Assange and to oppose openly the ongoing violations of his human right to healthcare.’ [8]
  • On 19 June 2018, Dinah PoKempner, General Counsel at Human Rights Watch, stated: ‘Concern is growing over his access to medical care. His asylum is growing more and more difficult to distinguish from detention. The UK has the power to resolve concerns over his isolation, health, and confinement by removing the threat of extradition for publishing newsworthy leaks.’ [9]
  • On 22 June 2018, Dr Sean Love, who over the course of the previous year had visited Mr Assange several times at the embasy, reiterated his concerns regarding Mr Assange’s health and repeated his call for him to be given access to healthcare in the British Medical Journal. [10] Dr Love wrote that ‘Assange’s detention continues to cause a precipitous deterioration in his overall condition’ and that ‘Because of his health issues, in 2015, Ecuadorian authorities requested that he be permitted humanitarian safe passage to a hospital in London; however, this was denied by the UK.’ Dr Love stated that ‘To this day, Assange remains unable to access hospital based diagnostic testing and treatment — even for a medical emergency. In effect, he has gone without proper access to care for the duration of his six years in confinement.’
  • On 31 May 2019, Mr Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, reported on his 9 May 2019 visit to Mr Assange, ‘we all came to the conclusion that he showed all the symptoms that are typical for a person that has been exposed to psychological torture over an extended period of time.’ [16]
  • On 22 October 2019, Craig Murray, a former British Ambassador, published a detailed and shocking eye witness account of Mr Assange’s hearing the previous day, stating that he ‘exhibited exactly the symptoms of a torture victim.’ [17] His report was corroborated by the eyewitness account of John Pilger, the renowned investigative journalist and filmmaker. [18]

They’ve also included a lengthy appendix.

Donald Trump could take his guns off Julian Assange right now!

Also from wsws.org: ‘Assange’s lawyer Jennifer Robinson addresses public meetings in Australia’, Patrick O’Connor, 25 November 2019, wsws.org, in part, and I’d tried, but failed to find the video:

“Robinson began her address by explaining that she had last met with Assange on November 12, before flying to Sydney. The barrister detailed the punitive and degrading treatment she is forced to endure in order to have a discussion with her imprisoned client.

“I have to go into a room [at London’s Belmarsh prison], lock away my things, put away my phone and my laptop,” Robinson told the Melbourne meeting on October 19.

“I’m only allowed to take in papers. I go into a holding area where we have to take our fingerprints. They take our keys. We then go in, walk across a courtyard into the entrance way of the prison, more finger prints, body scanning, going through doors where you have to wait for the beep to go. You walk in, you go into a sealed area before you can enter the prison. Once I’m inside I have to go through a complete body scan. Prison guards rifle through my papers to make sure there’s no contraband.

“I then have to go through another gateway, I cross another cold courtyard on the inside of the prison gates, where they take my fingerprints again. Then I actually get to an area where there’s a cafe, and of course because of austerity measures it’s manned by volunteers who work for Good Samaritans, volunteering their time to serve us things from the cafe, where I might get him [Assange] a cup of coffee and a Kit-Kat. It takes me 45 minutes from the entrance of the prison to another security desk, where I have to allow the prison guards to search my papers again. I pass people accused of violent crimes, some of them terrorism, many of them standing up against the glass, watching me as I walk past, and I come into a consultation room, and there sits Julian Assange.”

Robinson added: “Having worked on this case since 2010 I have been constantly resisting the normalisation of his treatment.”

The barrister described Assange’s arrest by British police earlier this year—after the Ecuadorian government capitulated to US imperialist pressure and revoked his asylum—as “the worst ‘I told you so’ for the media.”

Robinson detailed the nature of the charges that are the basis of the Trump administration’s request to the British for Assange’s extradition.

She explained that the espionage-based indictment reflected “what journalists do,” receiving and publishing important information and assisting whistleblowers in evading persecution. After outlining the significance of WikiLeaks’ revelations—including the “Collateral Murder” video of US war crimes in Iraq, the war logs from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the release of American diplomatic cables sent from across the world—she described the case against Assange as a “terrifying precedent” for open journalism.

Robinson condemned the Australian government and the media. “I wonder what would have happened,” she said, “if the media had have stood with the WikiLeaks founder, and the Australian government [had] raised its concern about an Australian citizen being treated in this way, whether it would have been feasible to do what the Trump administration has now done.”

The barrister explained that “each and every one of us can do something to help him [Assange] … you can, as an individual, support the local WikiLeaks campaigns. I know there are grassroots campaigns here in Melbourne. I would say that it does make a difference, not just to raise awareness in getting it to the media and to remind people what’s happened to Julian, but […] I try to take him pictures of protests, show him what’s happening around the world, and the news does get back to him and it does make a big difference to his day-to-day, which is pretty abhorrent, in a lot of senses.”

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