For two days, British prosecutors, acting on behalf of their US counterparts, urged the UK High Court to overturn a judge’s decision blocking Julian Assange’s extradition to the United States. Although the United States’ indictment against Assange is a textbook example of a political offense, which are traditionally immune from extradition, the judge rejected Assange’s press freedom claims. Instead, she found that given the conditions of US prisons and Assange’s mental state, his extradition would place the journalist at risk of suicide.
In seeking to rebut this ruling, the US and UK prosecutors’ sadism was on full display. British prosecutors engaged in character assassination of an eminent psychiatrist who they themselves have used as an expert and implied Assange could not be suicidal or severely mentally ill as he regularly watched television in the afternoon. The proceedings also turned on the validity of US assurances that Assange would receive humane treatment in US prisons. Not only are these assurances filed with troubling holes, but even the highest standard of treatment as outlined by the United States for Assange would likely amount to torture.
This is hardly surprising given how the United States has treated whistleblowers and others accused of giving information to the media in prison. Given the United States’ miserable track record in treating political prisoners like Assange and prisoners more generally, it’s clear that a successful extradition of Assange to the United States would result in grievous violations of his human rights.
Much of the United States’ assurances deal with the potential for Assange to be subject to Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) or be placed in the Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colorado (ADX Florence), a supermax prison, two prospects that alarmed a UK district judge so much that she blocked extradition. The Center for Constitutional Rights has described SAMs as the “darkest corner of the U.S. federal prison system, combining the brutality and isolation of maximum security units with additional restrictions that deny individuals almost any connection to the human world.” SAMs include both physical and social isolation.
Prisoners subjected to SAMs are already in solitary confinement. SAMs forbid prisoners from communicating at all with other prisoners. Only approved family members and lawyers may speak to someone under a SAM, and these calls are monitored by the FBI.
The SAMs apply not only to the prisoner but impose gag orders on those that are approved to speak with them, including lawyers. Prisoners subject to SAMs are restricted in what information they can receive from the outside world, with prison officials being allowed to censor periodicals about current events.
SAMs are reserved for national security and terrorism cases. Assange has stated he thinks he may be subject to them: Joshua Schulte, the accused source for WikiLeaks Vault 7 revelations, has been subject to SAMs since October 2018. Schulte maintains he is not the Vault 7 source and told officials that whoever was should be “executed.” In March 2020, a jury failed to reach a verdict on the Espionage Act charges against him. The government is seeking to retry Schulte, and he remains in jail, subject to SAMs, in solitary confinement, and not allowed to go outside after over three years.
The United States has not guaranteed Assange will not be subject to SAMs. Instead, they’ve assured that Assange would only be subject to SAMs if, after he was extradited to the United States, he committed an action that warranted imposing them.
This is hardly reassuring. The discretion to impose SAMs rests with the attorney general, and the way attorneys general have imposed SAMs is arbitrary, without any due process. SAMs cut off not only defendants but their attorneys from communicating with the media — a longtime goal of the United States and others when it comes to Assange.
In blocking extradition, the district judge decided that if convicted, Assange would likely be sent to ADX Florence. In this prison, inmates are confined to their cells for twenty-three hours a day. In the eight-by-twelve-foot cells, everything, including the furniture, is made of concrete. Like with the SAMs, the United States has offered assurances about ADX Florence that are full of holes. The United States assures Assange would not be held there posttrial unless “after entry of this assurance, [Assange] was to commit any future act that then meant he met the test for such designation.”
While the assurances are hardly reassuring, what is equally troubling is Assange’s fate even if the assurances are kept. In a declaration to British courts, assistant US attorney Gordon Kromberg asserted that if Assange is brought to the United States and subjected to pretrial detention, he will most likely be held at the William G. Truesdale Alexandria Adult Detention Center in Alexandria, Virginia. Kromberg claimed there is no solitary confinement at the Alexandria Detention Center before he described in detail the jail’s protective custody and administrative segregation housing units. Inmates in protective custody are not allowed to interact with other inmates. Inmates in administrative segregation, according to Kromberg’s declaration, are kept in their cells twenty-two hours a day.
British prosecutors rejected the claims that holding a person by themselves in a cell for twenty-two hours a day constituted solitary confinement. To make this point, they drew on Kromberg’s statements that “inmates in administrative segregation are able to speak to one other through the doors and windows of their cells” and that inmates in administrative segregation can meet with lawyers.
The United States’ claims, as parroted by British prosecutors, that Assange would not face solitary confinement, are patently absurd. The United Nations (UN) Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the “Nelson Mandela Rules”) defines solitary confinement as “22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact.” Under the Mandela Rules, solitary confinement in excess of fifteen consecutive days constitutes prolonged solitary confinement. Two successive UN special rapporteurs on torture have stressed that prolonged solitary confinement violates international human rights law and can very likely amount to torture. This is especially the case when inflicted on prisoners like Assange with preexisting mental health problems.
The United States’ own description of administrative segregation offered to the UK government meets the standard for solitary confinement under international law. Given that Assange is almost certainly likely to spend more than fifteen days in jail awaiting trial, Assange’s treatment under the United States’ own assurances would constitute torture under international law.
And Assange would not be the first person charged under the Espionage Act to be held in Alexandria Detention Center — meaning we already have a glimpse at the cruelties that await him.
A Troubling History of Abusing Whistleblowers
At least three whistleblowers have been held at Alexandria Detention Center. It is where Chelsea Manning was held when she refused to testify before the WikiLeaks grand jury. Similar to Kromberg’s declaration, Manning’s jailers claimed she was not in solitary confinement, which does exist at their facility, but administrative segregation. Manning was kept alone in her cell for over twenty-two hours a day and was only allowed to leave between the hours of 1:00 AM and 3:00 AM. Although Manning was removed from solitary after public pressure, the UN special rapporteur on torture still found the US government had tortured her.
This was the second time a UN special rapporteur on torture had made such a finding. In 2012, when Chelsea Manning was court-martialed for giving WikiLeaks the documents at the heart of the Assange indictment, her pretrial detention in a military jail was found to constitute cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, and possibly torture.
CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling described his own time at the Alexandria Detention Center in harrowing detail. Sterling recalled being placed in a “holding cell with numerous other detainees. We were packed in like so much garbage, sleeping on the floor and having to use an open toilet” before being moved to “special cell block” that also housed Zacarias Moussaoui (convicted of involvement in the 9/11 attacks). According to Sterling, his time in this unit was in solitary confinement, and he “would spend days on end without being let out of my small cell.”
Drone whistleblower Daniel Hale was also recently imprisoned at the Alexandria Detention Center. After pleading guilty to one count of violating the Espionage Act, Hale was initially released on his own recognizance. But after a therapist reported Hale as suicidal, Hale was ordered taken into custody, allegedly for his own mental health. Such a move is perverse on numerous levels. As Hale’s attorney Jesselyn Radack told Jacobin, “Daniel’s initial time at the Alexandria Detention Center was tantamount to torture. Despite his public struggle with severe PTSD, anxiety, and depression, he spent the first two weeks in solitary confinement, which is scientifically proven to increase a prisoner’s chance of suicide.”
After being sentenced, a judge recommended Hale be sent to a federal medical facility. First, Hale was transferred to Northern Neck Regional Jail where he was housed in a room with 100 other inmates. When he was placed in federal custody, Hale was sent to United States Penitentiary, Marion, in a Communications Management Unit (CMU).
Far from a medical center, the harsh conditions of CMUs have led civil libertarians to dub them “Guantanamo North.” CMUs are “prison units designed to isolate and segregate certain prisoners in the federal prison system from the rest of the . . . population.” Physical contact between CMU inmates and visitors is barred, inmates can neither write to nor call people without prior approval, and all communications are monitored.
The United States makes no assurances that Assange will not be placed in a CMU. In fact, Kromberg’s declaration explicitly makes clear that it’s possible. Kromberg claims, however, “The CMU Program Statement contains specific and detailed procedures and criteria for designating an inmate to a CMU.” Kromberg also made the astonishing claim that “CMU inmates are afforded the same opportunities to communicate with individuals outside of prison as regular inmates.”
Those who are familiar with CMUs sharply differ with how Kromberg portrayed them to British judges. Since 2010, the Center for Constitutional Rights has been challenging CMU policies in court. I shared a copy of Kromberg’s declaration with Rachel Meeropol, one of the attorneys on the case. She told me, “The assertions in [Kromberg’s declaration] are flat wrong. CMU prisoners’ ability to communicate with the outside world is far more restricted than prisoners in general population units in the Bureau of Prisons. . . . It is for these reasons, among others, that the DC Circuit Court of Appeals held that the CMUs are ‘atypical and significant’ compared to the ordinary incidents of prison life.”
As far as Kromberg’s claim about specific procedures for assigning inmates to the CMU, Meeropol noted, “The Bureau of Prisons’ failure to implement these procedures in a meaningful way is the subject of ongoing litigation.” In fact, just one week before the UK High Court hearing, Meeropol was before the DC Circuit Court as part of said litigation.
Hale, his supporters, and his attorney were all taken by complete surprise at the drone whistleblower’s placement in a CMU. Hale’s attorney Raddack initially struggled to get any officials to give her any sort of explanation. Eventually, prison officials claimed Hale was placed in a CMU because he committed a communications-based crime.
Hale’s crime was violating the Espionage Act by giving information about US drone warfare to the media. By this standard, Assange, who stands accused of violating the Espionage Act for publishing information about US war crimes, has also committed a communications-based crime.
Past treatment of US whistleblowers, coupled with the extreme animus the US government has for the Australian journalist, paints a grim picture of what is in store for Assange. And concerns about his treatment at the hands of the US government are escalated by concerns about Assange’s health.
“Absolutely No Treatment for My Mental Health”
Italian investigative journalist Stefania Maurizi had a similar reaction. Maurizi has been collaborating with Assange and WikiLeaks since 2007. She has seen Assange in a number of states, including under house arrest and in the Ecuadorian embassy. During a panel hosted by Defending Rights & Dissent, where I work, Maurizi recalled the last time she saw Assange face to face. It was November 2018, and Assange was still living in the Ecuadorian embassy.
According to the investigative reporter, Assange “was really in bad shape to an extent that I wrote a very desperate message to my editor at La Repubblica. I texted, I sent an email saying he’s dying. He’s lost so much weight. He’s really done.” According to Maurizi, that was nothing compared to how unhealthy Assange appeared during the appeal hearing.
Assange’s health has become a major point of concern for his supporters. Yet in US prisons, he is unlikely to get much in the way of care. In Sterling’s account of his time at the Alexandria Detention Center, both mental and physical health care were sparse. “The only attention to my mental health,” Sterling told me, “was a cursory exam by a disinterested staff doctor whose only concern was providing a report for the EDVA [Eastern District of Virginia] judge. There was absolutely no treatment for my deteriorating mental health.”
Sterling had recently had a total knee replacement and “absolutely no medical attention was provided. In fact, I was not provided my prescribed medications and that neglect had a definite impact on my recovery.” Sterling did not fare much better in federal prison; he had a chronic heart condition and had trouble receiving medical treatment there.
Keep the US Government’s Hands Off Assange
When Assange was taken out of the Ecuadorian embassy by London police, he was holding a copy of a book of interviews with Gore Vidal. Maurizi had given Assange the book as a gift. While gifting it, the Italian investigative journalist recounted to Assange how Vidal had lived in her native Italy on the Amalfi Coast on the Mediterranean.
As she spoke, Assange began to close his eyes. According to Maurizi, she asked, “Why are you closing your eyes? He said, because ‘I am trying to remember how it was to be outside of a building and in an open space close to the sea. I’m trying to remember.’ He didn’t remember how to go to the sea and to be free.”
For over a decade, Assange has not been free — first on house arrest, then inside the Ecuadorian embassy, now inside Her Majesty’s Prison Belmarsh. According to various UN human rights experts, he has been subjected to arbitrary detention, psychological torture, and collective persecution. His youngest two children have never known a time when their father was free.
Assange’s case is about press freedom, not just in the United States, but globally. But there is also a real human side to it. That the US, if they are able to get their hands on the journalist, will almost certainly subject him to cruel conditions of confinement should alarm everyone. Under no circumstances can the US government be allowed to get their hands on Assange.