The US government is begging the British High Court to allow Julian Assange to be extradited to the United States. Doing so would be a human rights disaster, given that American prisons violate the most basic human rights of political prisoners like Assange.
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.
A successful extradition of Assange to the United States would result in grievous violations of his human rights.
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.