- Created: Thursday, 30 May 2019 14:03
- Written by Nicki Jameson
On 12 April 2019 Julian Assange was seized by British police and forcibly removed from the Ecuadorian embassy where he had sought sanctuary seven years earlier. He is currently being held in Belmarsh high security prison in south east London, having been sentenced to a 50-week prison term for skipping bail in 2012. If this were the only reason for his imprisonment, he would be freed after 25 weeks in custody. However, as Assange and his supporters have always maintained would happen, he is now having to fight a legal battle against extradition to the US, where he faces a raft of charges and the prospect of decades in prison. If this is not concluded by the time his criminal sentence finishes, he will continue to be held on the extradition warrant and stands no realistic chance of being granted bail a second time. NICKI JAMESON reports.
Assange founded the media organisation/website Wikileaks in 2006. As editor-in-chief until September 2018, he was responsible for publishing thousands of documents and cables from US and other government sources, revealing damning evidence of imperialist crimes. These included videos of US slaughter of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, and evidence of government policy authorising the systematic use of torture.
In May 2010 Chelsea Manning, then a private in the US army, was arrested and charged with leaking material, including videos of US airstrikes on Baghdad in 2007 and Granai, Afghanistan in 2009, as well as 251,287 diplomatic cables and 482,832 army reports. This material was published by WikiLeaks and its media partners (including The Guardian) between April 2010 and April 2011.
It was apparent from the moment Wikileaks started publishing incriminating material about the US war machine that Assange would be targeted. Manning was convicted by court-martial in July 2013 and sentenced to 35 years’ imprisonment. She was released in 2017 following a commutation from outgoing president Barack Obama; however she is currently subject to repeated periods of imprisonment for contempt of court, as she steadfastly refuses to testify to a Grand Jury inquiry into Wikileaks and provide information which the US authorities could use to prosecute Assange. As FRFI goes to press, Manning is once again incarcerated, under threat of remaining there until either the Grand Jury investigation is concluded or she agrees to testify. Additionally, District Court Judge Anthony Trenga ordered that if she is in custody for 30 days she will begin to be fined $500 a day, and if she is still there after 60 days this will rise to $1,000 a day.
In September 2010 Assange was questioned by police in Sweden in relation to two sexual assault allegations. He was not charged and the case was then closed, and he was told he was free to leave the country; however the investigation was subsequently reopened and he was arrested on a European Arrest Warrant in December 2010. After being held for nine days in the segregation unit of Wandsworth prison, which he described as ‘solitary confinement in the bottom of a Victorian prison’, Assange was released on bail with a condition he reside at the house of a wealthy supporter. In June 2012 he breached the terms of this bail by leaving that address and taking refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy. The Ecuadorian foreign minister confirmed to the press that Assange was there and that his application for political asylum was under consideration.
Although, at this point, the only extradition warrant openly in place related to possible rape and sexual assault charges in Sweden, Assange and his supporters – including those in the Ecuadorian government then led by progressive president Rafael Correa – were correctly convinced that extradition to Sweden would just be a stepping stone to further extradition to the US. This reasoning resulted in Ecuador granting his asylum application in August 2012.
Ecuador’s act of solidarity did not resolve Assange’s problem, however, as the British authorities made it clear that were he to leave the confines of the embassy in an attempt to leave the country, he would be arrested and returned to prison. The ensuing stalemate only ended nearly seven years later due to the treachery of the ill-named Lenin Moreno, who succeeded Correa as president in 2017, and who gave the British police the green light to snatch Assange from the embassy.
Emboldened by Assange’s imprisonment, the Swedish prosecution service has now applied for a renewed warrant to extradite him to face charges there. Whatever the truth of the allegations that he faces in Sweden, the main aim of the US and British authorities, and that of their new allies in the turncoat Ecuadorean government remains to render Assange to the US where he can be tried and incarcerated for the crime of shining a worldwide spotlight onto the barbaric workings of the imperialist war machine.
Readers are asked to send solidarity messages to:
- Julian Assange (date of birth 3/7/1971), HMP Belmarsh, Western Way, Thamesmead, London SE28 0EB.
- Chelsea Elizabeth Manning, William G Truesdale Adult Detention Center 2001 Mill Road Alexandria, VA 22314, USA. (Send letters and newspapers – cards and books are not permitted.)
For further background see the article ‘Free Julian Assange! No to extradition!’ on our website.
The Free Julian Assange campaign demonstrates regularly outside Belmarsh and at all the extradition hearings. For details see https://www.facebook.com/Free-Julian-Assange-112794885456369/
Extradition to the US
Extraditions between the US and Britain are governed by a treaty which was signed in March 2003 during a visit to the US by then Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett and which is enshrined in British law in Part 2 of the Extradition Act 2003. The relevant measures came into force in 2007 and mean that a person can be extradited from Britain to the US without any evidence being produced of a basic (‘prima facie’) case against him or her.
In October 2012, five men were extradited to the US on terrorism charges, following lengthy legal battles of five to 14 years, during which they were detained mainly in the special Detainee Unit in Long Lartin high security prison in Worcestershire.
In July 2012 their lawyers had applied to the European Court of Human Rights to appeal against a ruling that it would not be unlawful to extradite them, despite the extreme conditions of solitary confinement and sensory deprivation within the US prison they would face. The application was unsuccessful and the extraditions went ahead. A sixth prisoner, whose case was subject to further scrutiny due to his suffering severe mental illness as result of prolonged detention, was sent after them in 2014.
FRFI supported the campaign against extradition led by the families of Talha Ahsan and Babar Ahmad, and detailed articles about the case can be found on our website.
HMP Belmarsh opened in 1991, the year after the Strangeways prison riot, and was one of a number of modern prisons built in that era, ostensibly to begin the process of replacing the aging 19th century penitentiaries which were both crumbling and erupting in protest. Constructed and opened in the years prior to the IRA ceasefire and Good Friday Agreement, it was designed to house high security political prisoners and others deemed to merit the classification of ‘exceptional risk Category A’, in a special high security unit (HSU), a ‘prison within a prison’.
A new high security court was constructed next door with a tunnel linking the two; the intention being to move all trials requiring a high level of security to there from the Old Bailey - a move resisted by judges, who found travelling to Thamesmead inconvenient. Meanwhile the main prison was constructed to fulfil several functions simultaneously, including that of a remand prison for the south east London area.
In the period following the US and British invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in 2003, the Labour government stepped up the ‘war on terror’ by detaining without trial those it suspected of terrorist sympathies but against whom it could prove no crime. The severe regime they were subjected to resulted in Belmarsh being labelled ‘Britain’s Guantanamo’. In FRFI 221 June/July 2011, we published an account from a former detainee, who was held in Belmarsh for 27 months from January 2003 until April 2005, the first 12 months in the HSU:
‘The HSU is a small prison island within the prison where 95% of the detainees were Muslims. The guards are rotated every six months due to the effect it has on their physical and psychological health. My isolation and segregation there amounted to torture. I was locked up 22 hours a day in a single 3m x 2m cell with a bed, toilet, sink, iron table and chair sealed to the wall and a tiny hatch on the door from where the guard could sneak a look at me any time of the day or night. There was no privacy. The window was small and layered with iron bars. There was no TV or hot water. They often pretended to be short staffed and then I was locked in the cell 24/7. The door was only opened to throw me a sandwich at dinner time, which I had to eat alone in my cell. There was no association, exercise, phone calls, shower or anything.’
Today Belmarsh holds approximately 860 prisoners, 70% of whom are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. According to the 2018 prisons inspectorate report, the prison contains ‘a complex population, ranging from remand and short sentences, to indeterminate sentence and high profile cases’. The report documents that each month:
350 new prisoners are received;
140 are released;
450 receive support for substance misuse;
300 prisoners are referred for mental health assessment.