A decision to refuse a bail request filed by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in light of the highly contagious coronavirus has been harshly criticised especially because of his weak physical health.
Assange, who is in a British jail pending his extradition trial to the US, had filed an emergency bail application on the basis of his deteriorating health condition. This, however, was denied – a move that was slammed by the International Federation of Journalists.
#FreeAssange Yesterday, the emergency bail application for Julian Assange made in light of the #COVIDー19 pandemic was denied. Due to his health condition, Assange faces an elevated risk of contracting Covid-19 and could suffer serious consequences from the virus. Time to act.
— IFJ (@IFJGlobal) March 26, 2020
The request was made as the UK registered the first prison coronavirus death on Sunday – an 84-year-old male inmate at HMP Littlehey who suffered from respiratory problems before contracting the disease.
As of this week, 19 inmates had tested positive for Covid-19 across 10 British jails and four prison staff had tested positive for the disease across four jails. Three prisoner escort and custody services staff have also tested positive for coronavirus.
@wikileaks editor-in-chief @khrafnsson condemns the decision not to release Julian #Assange on bail in light of the #Coronavirus crisis. More than 100 staff from Belmarsh are off sick. pic.twitter.com/V99fMOjUXD
— Don't Extradite Assange (@DEAcampaign) March 25, 2020
Wikileaks editor-in-chief Kristin Hrafnsson also condemned the decision. “He has suffered enough. Ten years of arbitrary detention has left him very vulnerable at this moment,” he said.
The bail request comes in the wake of a public appeal made by the United Nations Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet who called on governments to take action to protect the health and safety of people in detention.
“I know governments are facing huge demands on resources in this crisis and have to make many difficult decisions. But I urge them not to forget those behind bars or in places such as closed mental health facilities, nursing homes, orphanages,” she said.
“Otherwise the consequences could be catastrophic – for those detained, for staff, for visitors, and, of course, for wider society,” she said.
Authorities should find ways to release those particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 such as older and sick detainees, to drastically reduce the prison population so physical distancing becomes possible and should possibly consider releasing low-risk offenders.
“Now, more than ever, governments should release every person detained without sufficient legal basis including political prisoners and others detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views,” Bachelet said.
His state of health had also alarmed UN rapporteur on Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment Nils Melzer who said the journalist had been deliberately exposed to inhuman and degrading treatment while imprisoned.
Assange is fighting extradition charges to the US where he will face 18 charges of attempted hacking and breaching the Espionage Act for releasing the documents.
He can face up to 175 years in prison and has been kept in detention in a high-security prison in the UK, since September, serving a 50-week jail term.
His legal team are trying to convince a British judge that his decision to release classified US documents about Guantánamo Bay and the actions of the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan were nothing but political.
The War Diaries provided evidence that the US Government misled the public about activities in Afghanistan and Iraq and committed war crimes. The information was carried by major media outlets around the globe in public interest reporting.