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U.N. official says Julian Assange is a victim of ‘psychological torture,’ warns against U.S. extradition

Supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange protest outside Westminster Magistrates’ Court on Thursday. (Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images)

LONDON — WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange — who, after seven years holed up in the Ecuadoran Embassy here, is serving a British prison sentence and fighting U.S. extradition — is showing symptoms of “prolonged exposure to psychological torture,” according to a United Nations official.

Extraditing Assange to the United States, following the announcement last week of 17 new charges under the Espionage Act, would represent a grave threat to his human rights, said Nils Melzer, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Melzer cited a scenario in which Assange could receive “a life sentence without parole, or possibly even the death penalty, if further charges were to be added in the future.”

“In 20 years of work with victims of war, violence and political persecution, I have never seen a group of democratic states ganging up to deliberately isolate, demonise and abuse a single individual for such a long time and with so little regard for human dignity and the rule of law,” Melzer said in a statement released Friday.

On Thursday, Assange, 47, missed a scheduled court appearance via videolink because he was “not very well,” according to his lawyer, and had been transferred from his cell to the health ward of Belmarsh Prison. WikiLeaks claimed Assange has “dramatically lost weight” and quoted a defense lawyer as saying “it was not possible to conduct a normal conversation with him.”

“In the atmosphere and the conditions, he has gone from one prison to another prison,” WikiLeaks editor Kristinn Hrafnsson said.

Assange regularly complained about how Ecuador treated him while he took refuge in a corner room of its red-brick embassy. He unsuccessfully sued the Foreign Ministry last year over demands that he pay for his medical bills and clean up after his cat — among other conditions he said were intended to force him from the embassy. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights also dismissed his complaints.

Melzer said in an interview with The Washington Post that he declined to weigh in on conditions at the embassy when contacted by Assange’s lawyers in December. The special rapporteur said he can only pursue a couple of the 10 to 15 requests he receives each day. Additionally, Melzer admitted he was no fan of WikiLeaks and considered its founder a bad actor.

Reports that Assange kept an untidy bathroom and left divots in the floor from his skateboard did not help.

But after Ecuador terminated Assange’s asylum and he was arrested by British police in April, Melzer agreed to look into his detention, spending four hours with Assange at Belmarsh Prison on the outskirts of London this month.

In his public statement, Melzer said the WikiLeaks founder “showed all symptoms typical for prolonged exposure to psychological torture, including extreme stress, chronic anxiety and intense psychological trauma.”

Melzer said two medical experts accompanied him to assess Assange and document his symptoms. “He perceives his whole environment to be hostile,” he said.

He added that Assange is being prevented from taking a sufficient part in his own legal defense. Last week, the special rapporteur said, Assange was brought an hour and 40 minutes late to a meeting with his attorneys, leaving just 20 minutes for discussions — too little time even to translate a document pertaining to Sweden’s decision to reopen a rape investigation against him.

“This adds to his anxiety, because he’s someone who’s always been at the center of organizing things, and that’s the way he copes,” said Melzer, who is also an international law professor at Glasgow University and holds the human rights chair at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights.

The British government released a statement that it supported Melzer’s mandate but “disagreed with a number of his observations” and would “respond to his letter in due course.”

The statement continued: “Judges are impartial and independent from Government, with any judgment based solely on the facts of the case and the applicable law. The law provides all those convicted with a right of appeal.”

The U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention earlier called for Assange’s release, saying his 50-week sentence is disproportionate to his jumping bail in 2012, when he was wanted by Swedish authorities for questioning about allegations of rape and sexual assault, which he denies. The U.N. group further asserted that Assange’s detention at high-security Belmarsh “appears to contravene the principles of necessity and proportionality.”

Assange was sent to Belmarsh because, in addition to its high-security function, it is a local prison serving the Westminster Magistrates’ Court, where his extradition case is being heard. Assange has been charged in the United States with conspiring to hack a government computer and violating the Espionage Act by seeking out and disseminating classified information.

Assange is not in the block of Belmarsh reserved for the highest-risk inmates — its “Category A” wing once criticized as “Britain’s Guantanamo Bay.” Instead, he is classified as “Category B” and, at least before going to the health ward, had been held in an individual unit on a cell block with about 70 detainees, according to Melzer.

In his cell, which is about 6 feet by 10 feet, he has a bed, a cupboard, a blackboard, a plastic chair and a toilet. Three hours of “association time” each day allow him to interact with other inmates, complete chores and manage his personal hygiene. He has no access to a computer, Melzer said.

Journalist Charles Glass, a friend of Assange’s, said Belmarsh was an improvement over the embassy, in that Assange would get time outside and have access to free medical care provided by the National Health Service.

Built in 1991, Belmarsh is modern by the standards of British prisons. The facility is typical in suffering from budgetary pressures and staffing shortages, said Mark Day, head of policy for the London-based Prison Reform Trust.

These problems have spawned violence and enabled the spread of drugs. Some disciplinary staff were “dismissive and disrespectful toward prisoners,” according to a 2018 review. Sixty percent of men had as little as one to three hours a day unlocked from their cells. There had been three “self-inflicted deaths” since the previous report in 2015. About 10 incidents of self-harm occurred each month.

“You wouldn’t want to be there if you had a choice, but the difficulties will be accidental or unthinking rather than deliberate,” said Nicholas Hardwick, who led a review of the prison in 2015.

Britain’s longest-serving prisoner, John Massey, was sent to Belmarsh after he escaped in 2012 from a prison in north London. He was roughed up, he recounted to the Guardian after being released last year, and was told that he had “upset a lot of people.”

As much as Melzer is concerned about Assange’s treatment at Belmarsh, he said his “most urgent concern” is the potential for extradition to the United States.

The U.S. criminal complaint against Assange announced last week, which has alarmed advocates of press freedom, claims his disclosures “created a grave and imminent risk to human life.”

“There’s no chance he’ll get a fair trial in the U.S.,” Melzer said. “That’s where I draw the line.”

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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