21st Century Wire
The recent open letter by Doctors for Assange to British Home Secretary Priti Patel once more highlights the weaponising of maximum security prison HMP Belmarsh in the British government’s abuse of Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks. The letter is signed by 65 doctors from across the globe, expressing concern for Assange’s fitness to stand trial and asking for an urgent medical assessment of both his physical and psychological state of health, to be carried out in a university teaching hospital. The doctors fear that if action is not taken immediately, that Assange could die in prison. Still, many people are demanding an explanation to why Assange is in Belmarsh prison at all.
Assange has been held in Belmarsh prison since he was forced from the Ecuadorian Embassy in April as the result of a plan then hatched between the Ecuadorian government and Alan Duncan, the UK Minister of State for Europe and the Americas. It has since been condemned as a violation of international law. Assange’s subsequent 50 week prison sentence for skipping a police bail in 2012 showed the British state’s open contempt for the decision of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention that ruled Assange had legal asylum status in the Ecuadorian embassy and was being arbitrarily detained there due to the actions of the British and Swedish authorities, as well as the looming threat of extradition to the US.
Norms and narratives: persecution presented as ‘good governance’
The government’s own reports show that excessive and disproportionate security regimes are the norm for the many lower category prisoners in Belmarsh’s population. This has enabled the state to subject Assange, not a category A prisoner, to continued arbitrary detention in the harshest of prison conditions, unable to prepare his legal defence due to severe restrictions, while being isolated and constantly surveilled.
Judge Vanessa Baraitser’s decision in October to remand Assange in Belmarsh as a ‘person facing extradition‘ when his bail skipping sentence came to an end, has effectively continued his indefinite arbitrary detention. There is good reason to suspect that her narrative – that he will abscond if released, is no more than a convenient pretext for keeping him locked up in the category A prison.
Category A prisoners are labeled as such because they pose a danger to the public if they escape. In fact, absconding while on bail, a minor offence, and escaping from prison, a serious offence, fall under entirely different categorisations. How can the state indefinitely remand someone under category A conditions when there is no evidence that they pose any threat or danger to the public? As already pointed out, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention statement clearly outlines that Assange had good reason to not surrender while on bail and sought asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy for fear of being extradited to the US, a fear now clearly vindicated by the US request for his extradition.
So how is it Assange still remains in Belmarsh? Is it to show the US that Britain is using its top penal facility to keep its bounty safe? Or perhaps the state is using the exhibition value of keeping him there in order to further the idea that Assange is a dangerous menace to the public? Government reports show that Belmarsh is not used for holding men for extended periods of time, even the most dangerous, and that should Assange be held there while fighting extradition appeals, were his health not in question and were he to survive, it is possible he could outstay by far the average murderer and terrorist. Consider that, and the fact he is unconvicted and has never had criminal charges brought against him, other than spurious and highly politicsed US indictments relating to journalism. As pointed out by Craig Murray, these amount to the very definition of politically-motivated charges.
His weak and deteriorating physical condition is providing the justification for Belmarsh to keep him in the health care unit – a ready-made narrative for isolation which the public will perceive as another norm. While there he is kept away from other inmates in a sustained regime of no contact, other than for the weekly opportunity of worship. Effectively, this is solitary confinement.
The weaponising of Belmarsh prison in the state’s abuse of Assange is total. We know this because his health has significantly deteriorated, not just in the prison but in the healthcare unit as well. We know this because campaigners and friends have witnessed his deterioration over the months and can bear witness to the marked decline in his demeanour and condition. We know this because this case has been comprehensively laid out in the Doctors’ petition.
We can also see from reports and legislation that unconvicted prisoners die in prison, and they have died in Belmarsh. Such a case is described, in a report by the prison ombudsman, of a man who entered Belmarsh in April 2014 and died in the July from pancreatic cancer. Doctors ceased his treatment prior to his imprisonment, as it was not working. The report reveals that he was on remand for “alleged charges,” therefore an unconvicted prisoner, like Assange.
Also like Assange, he was not allowed bail. The report explains:
“The man was a remand prisoner and not eligible for release on compassionate grounds. His legal representatives unsuccessfully attempted to have him released on bail.”
The report explains that while he was refused release, he could have chosen to go to a hospice, although this request could only be granted if he had only two weeks to live. In the end, this man died in Belmarsh.
Unlike Assange, he was a bona fide category A prisoner. It is here we remember that the state is treating Assange as a category A prisoner, allowing the state to administer the harshest treatment by bureaucratic fiat, in all but official label, and presenting him as such to the public. The vitriolic comments about Assange made by judges throughout court proceedings have helped to promote this perception. After hearing all of this, of course many would ask: who would release such a monster?
It is also important to point out that legislation denies unconvicted prisoners temporary release even for medical procedures, on the face of it, because it is assumed that their detention will not be indefinite or lengthy:
“All prisoners other than those who are:
- remanded in custody by any court
- committed in custody for trial
- unsentenced prisoners or inmates
can be considered for temporary release for in-patient or out-patient hospital care, because such care cannot await the patient’s release or cannot be provided within the prison.”
But Assange is being held indefinitely. This appears to be one of the key administrative loopholes fashioned by the British state designed to keep Assange in Belmarsh. In an interview in May his lawyer, Jennifer Robinson, said his case could take many years.
We should also remember the promises made by former Home Secretary, Savid Javid, in the House of Commons on 11th April following Assange’s arrest:
“While he remains in custody in the UK, we are now in a position to ensure access to all necessary medical care and facilities.”
On the back of its violation of asylum law and the narrative of ‘absconding’, the state is using Belmarsh, which has the infrastructure, precedents and perceived ‘norms’ necessary, to destroy Assange while deceiving the public that his treatment is somehow lawful or normal. If the state does not stop its systematic abuse of Assange, Belmarsh will make history: it will become known as the state-sponsored weapon of choice in the assassination of a leading intellectual, journalist and truth teller.
‘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.’
– Nils Melzer, UN Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
Author Nina Cross is an independent writer and researcher, and contributor to 21WIRE. To see more of her work, visit Nina’s archive.
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