The article reproduces the text of the intervention of Serena Ferrario on the occasion of the meeting on “The indictment of Julian Assange and the risks for the freedom of the press” held in Bussoleno (TO) Saturday 14 December 2019
I was asked to talk about Assange’s health conditions; this is, as may well be imagined, a question that often recurs in interviews with the people who are closest to him and who visit him regularly in the Belmarsh prison where he is held. Clearly, I am not part of this circle and therefore I will have to refer to the reports of several witnesses.
The situation that emerges from these reports and from the reports of very authoritative experts, such as the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, is extremely serious and worrying, but, before I go into detail, let me reiterate why his condition must to be close to our hearts, not only because of a question of empathy towards another human being who is subjected to repulsive and unjustifiable torture, but at the same time as something whose implications can have chilling consequences for the future that awaits us. I spoke of torture just now; perhaps you might think that this is an exaggeration or hyperbole used to emphasize my discourse, but it is not: it is the only appropriate definition that can be given – and that has been given – to represent what is happening before to us, but conveniently hidden from our view.
Assange’s treatment and the serious limitations that are imposed on his ability to participate adequately in his own defense are not just revenge for the Wikileaks revelations; they are a warning to all journalists, especially investigative ones, to refrain from following his example by spreading uncomfortable news for the governments involved (although absolutely in the interest of the public) and to adhere to the official narrative. His systematic, scientific, and progressive destruction is a warning, just as the harrowing aspect of the condemned during the medieval Inquisition trials had to hold as a warning to all heretics and free thinkers to conform to the orthodoxy (or to the teaching of the Church or to the will of the sovereign). The scars and signs of torture on their bodies were a clear signal of what was to be expected when authority was called into question, and the most distinguished was the heretic, the most frightening and exemplary was to be punishment. By disfiguring, injuring and crippling their bodies, the torturers tried to suffocate and sometimes even to kill freedom of thought, the right to seek the truth without dogmatic constraints and the demands for a more free and fair society. In this regard, it is not an exaggeration to say that Assange has in our days a stature and an historical meaning comparable to those of Socrates, of Giordano Bruno or of Galileo; like them, he represents something that goes far beyond his individuality and, through him, it is our right to know the deeds and to call into question for their crimes those who govern us that the United States and its allies are, so to say, putting in jail, torturing, crippling and, God forbid, suppressing forever.
Returning to the original argument, Assange’s conditions are perfectly summarized by this vivid description provided by Craig Murray, after attending the hearing on October 21:
“I was badly shocked by just how much weight my friend has lost, by the speed his hair has receded and by the appearance of premature and vastly accelerated ageing. He has a pronounced limp I have never seen before. Since his arrest he has lost over 15 kg in weight. But his physical appearance was not as shocking as his mental deterioration. When asked to give his name and date of birth, he struggled visibly over several seconds to recall both“Craig Murray – Assange in Court
This striking description that mercilessly represents Assange’s physical and mental decline is nothing but the testimony of the result of what Nils Melzer in his capacity as United Nations Special Rapporteur for Torture during an official report presented on May 31st has explicitly defined as a “mistreatment more and more serious protracted for a long time”, whose effects, exacerbated by its growing isolation in a hostile environment, amount to a “psychological torture”. Referring to his almost ten-year prison term first under house arrest (after a brief period of detention in prison) and then, starting in 2012, in the Ecuadorian embassy, Melzer noted how “during the last 9 years Assange has been exposed to a persistent and increasingly serious abuse that ranged from a systematic judicial persecution to arbitrary detention within the embassy, from his oppressive isolation, to the harassment and surveillance of which he was subjected inside the headquarters diplomatic, from a deliberate mockery, slander and humiliation enacted by many parties, up to a clear instigation to violence and even to its murder “by prominent American politicians and public figures. In the course of his report, Melzer listed in detail the psychological effects of what appears to be beyond doubt (thanks also to the judgment of 2 professionals with years of experience in the evaluation of torture victims and who have accompanied on his visit to Assange) as a psychological torture and which include extreme nervous tension, severe chronic anxiety and intense psychological trauma, stressing that although these effects essentially derive from a psychological cause, their repercussions can easily extend to the physical sphere, causing high blood pressure, increased susceptibility to infections or diseases (including cancer), neurological problems, arrhythmias and even heart failure and, if not treated promptly and adequately, can lead to death. It is important to note, as Melzer himself reiterated in some interviews released in the days immediately following the publication of his report on Assange, that we should not fall into the error of considering psychological torture as something light or not very serious; even if it does not leave visible signs on the bodies of its victims, it is a practice studied with meticulous scientifically (also employing the advice of specialists in the sector, such as psychologists and psychiatrists) with the aim of weakening and destroying the perception of one’s own self, of one’s own individual value and a sense of security that is intimately linked to replace them with a state of continual despair, confusion and depression, the effects of which can continue to be felt, sometimes even with dramatic exacerbation’s, even months or years after the torture has ceased.
It is certainly worth noting that the report of which I have reported some passages was published on 31 May and contains the conclusions of the examination conducted by Melzer on Assange’s conditions on 9 May, or about 3 and a half weeks after he had been forcibly taken away from the Ecuadorian embassy and sentenced to 50 weeks to be served in a maximum security prison (Belmarsh); at the time Assange was not yet detained in isolation, but the limited access to his lawyers and the lack of availability of documents concerning his case made it impossible to collaborate in the preparation of his defense, exacerbating a pre-existing state of acute anxiety.
This led to a collapse of Assange’s health between May and June, which not only prevented him from participating in a video connection from prison to a hearing, but ordered his urgent transfer to the prison infirmary where he is still being held . At first glance it may seem that the transfer of Assange to the medical department reveals a genuine concern of the prison authorities for his well-being and an attempt, albeit weak and insufficient, to comply with Melzer’s recommendations, remedying and alleviating the conditions that led to the profound state of psychological suffering in which he finds himself; it is enough to dwell briefly on the situation in which Assange is detained to realize how wrong this impression is and how much Belmarsh is in every way, to use the words of the current editor-in-chief of Wikileaks, Kristinn Hrafnsson, “ bricks and wire hell of sensory deprivation “. In addition to Hrafnsson, the harshness of the regime to which Assange is subjected has been denounced by many, including the Courage Foundation; according to their statements, Assange is locked up in solitary confinement for at least 22 hours a day inside his cell and, when he is allowed to go out and move inside the prison, this happens under what are defined as “displacements controlled “, in the sense that the other prisoners are made to return to their cells, so as to empty the corridors and prevent them from meeting a living soul, with the exception of the guards. The only opportunity for socialization allowed to him is during the religious service held weekly at the prison chapel, a function that, according to the chronicles, is often marred by disturbing abuses and episodes of violence perpetrated by gangs of prisoners of damage of other prisoners.
Furthermore, in order to exacerbate the harmful effects of such intense isolation, Assange is denied access to the library and to a PC with an internet connection, which would help him not only to escape from the absolute loneliness that surrounds him, but also to contribute to his defense by helping lawyers in their work. In addition to the isolation Assange is subjected to an extremely invasive surveillance: as told by the journalist John Pilger every 30 minutes a guard opens the peephole and glances to make sure that the prisoner has not committed suicide or has committed acts of self-harm in solitude of his cell.
The objective of these measures is clear: to create a hostile and destabilizing environment around Assange in which he is completely subjected to the will of guards and prison authorities, to increase his isolation and the feeling of frustration and powerlessness. As I have already said, this is not mere bullying, but it is psychological torture based on social deprivation. The effects of such deprivation have been known for many years for having been analyzed and studied both on social animals, such as dogs, monkeys, etc., and on human subjects, in particular precisely on prisoners subjected to prison isolation for various reasons, a isolation that sometimes lasts even for several months, as is the case with Assange. In a 2003 American study that examined the prison population of some large high security complex, we read that “deprived of normal social interaction, many prisoners subjected to isolation have reported significant alterations in their psychological health, including anxiety acute, paranoia attacks, insomnia, episodes of aggression often turned against oneself and depression ”. In the literature there are also reported mood swings, hallucinations, schizophrenia and inability to interact normally with other people, once re-entered into society. This is long-term damage, which often lasts for many years and significantly affects the quality and life span of these individuals who often die prematurely by suicide.
Furthermore, the sensory deprivation caused by the stay for 23 hours a day in a cell measuring 2 meters by 3 can lead to a drastic decrease in brain activity with deleterious consequences on memory and reasoning abilities, such as those shown by Assange himself on the occasion of the his first (and so far only) appearance in person in court last October 21, when, in response to a question from the judge, he stated that he could not think clearly and struggled to remember his full name and date of birth. Similarly, this summer he had confessed to a visiting friend that he felt he was going crazy. It is precisely because of these effects, their intensity and pervasiveness that in 2014 the UN has in fact assimilated prison isolation to a form of psychological torture, recommending that member states never allow isolation to be carried on for more than 2 consecutive weeks.
Since he was transferred to the medical department of the prison, Assange’s health conditions have steadily deteriorated (as predicted by Melzer in his report), so much so that at the beginning of autumn they began to circulate among the people who are most near rumors that there was a real danger that Assange could die before the end of the extradition trial in the US. These serious concerns were first expressed by Assange’s father, John Shipton, during an interview released on October 5 (Julian reached a point where he could die) and echoed again by Melzer in a second report presented before the United Nations Council in early November. In this document, Melzer pointed out that the British authorities have completely ignored his previous appeals to stop the torture inflicted on Assange and to give him the opportunity to receive the therapies that he urgently needs to be able to recover physically and psychologically. In particular, Melzer has insisted that Britain has always shown the most complete and shocking disregard for Assange’s fundamental health and rights, concluding that Assange’s continuing exposure to abuses and the discretion of both the government and the judiciary could soon end up costing his life, unless Britain radically changes his policy. It goes without saying that it would be extremely naive and unrealistic to expect such a change, considering UK’s reluctance to fulfill its obligations under international law and the disdainful rejection of the conclusions and recommendations of various UN experts; in fact, from May to today, not only have no measures been taken to improve Assange’s conditions, but on the contrary there has been a noticeable crackdown with the imposition of prison isolation and innumerable limitations that prevent him from accessing the people and the material resources he needs for his well-being and for the preparation of his case.
The extremely worrying scenario outlined by John Shipton and Melzer and the shocking aspect of Assange described by Craig Murray during the hearing of October 21 prompted more than 65 medical professionals from various parts of the world to address an open letter to the current British secretary of state, Pritti Pattel, to ask that Assange is subjected with the utmost urgency to a complete assessment of his physical and psychological health and that he is transferred as soon as possible to a university hospital in order to receive the treatments that, based on to this evaluation, are indicated as necessary. Beyond its importance as a document that adds several voices endowed with considerable authority to the United Kingdom to finally respect Assange’s fundamental rights which have been denied for so long, the letter offers a retrospective on the conditions of Assange before his arrest and therefore still during his stay in the embassy, referring in particular to three reports dated 2015. In that year three different specialists visited Assange and underlined in their reports the urgency to proceed with more detailed instrumental examinations in order to achieve an exact evaluation and define the best therapeutic option with regard to,
- the fracture of an upper premolar that dated back to 5 years, when, on the occasion of Assange’s first stay in an English prison, a piece of metal was hidden in his food, causing the breaking of a tooth and the consequent exposure of the pulp and nerve.
- stiffness and pain in a shoulder that would have required the execution of an magnetic resonance in order to be able to accurately diagnose the problem and proceed with an adequate functional re-education
- a situation of chronic anxiety as a consequence of the prolonged physical pain and of the denial opposed by the British authorities to his request for a “safe passage” for and returning from a health facility in contravention of the same Universal Declaration of Human Rights which places health and receiving adequate health care among the inalienable rights of the individual.
I believe it is worth quoting an excerpt of this evaluation, remembering of course that what was valid in 2015 is even more so now, especially since to the deliberate neglect that, as the doctors confirmed in their letter, could end up causing death of Assange in an English jail, it’s added, in the event that he could survive, the prospect of an extradition to the United States, of a further farcical trial before a secret Grand Jury and, if found guilty of all charges, of a 175 years prison sentence to be served within a maximum security facility, where Assange is very likely to be exposed to new and more heinous forms of torture.
“The only way for Assange to have access to urgent medical treatment or diagnostic investigations would be to surrender himself to the British authorities. Assange is therefore in the enviable position of having to choose between his physical health and the risk of being extradited to the United States … This situation actually transforms any physical illness, no matter how trivial, into something that could have catastrophic consequences for the his health or his personal freedom. He lives in a state of constant insecurity for his health … The effects of the situation on the health and well-being of Assange are serious and almost certainly there will be a considerable increase in the risks associated with it, with potentially even fatal consequences should the situation persist. “Doctor (name redacted) – Psycho-social Medical Report, 11 December 2015 (PDF Warning)
These conclusions follow those of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention which, in a pronouncement dating back to the end of 2015, had concluded that
“it is reasonable to believe that, after 5 years of deprivation of liberty, the health of Mr. Assange may have worsened to the point that anything just worse than a trivial disease would have extremely risky consequences. “OHCHR Working Group’s Opinion on Julian Assange’s case (docx warning)
In a second letter dated December 6, 2019, the doctors, who are now more than 80, besides expressing their profound disappointment at the lack of response from the British government, reiterated their serious concern that Assange could from here to little to die in a British prison for deliberate medical negligence.
If this were to happen, obviously Great Britain will not be able to hide from the world what this death really represents: a murder of the state committed in the most gruesome way, but at the same time an execution planned and carried out in cold blood of the essential values of democracy, a ruinous collapse of all the freedoms and rights that mankind has conquered with hard work and a high price since the Enlightenment up to the present day and which are today threatened by an unprecedented attack launched from the heart of Western civilization itself to what represents the first and most fundamental pillar of democracy: the right to know what our governments do in our name, to lift the veil thrown under the pretext of national security over what is not appropriate for citizens to see and, ultimately, not to recognize any other authority except that of Truth and Justice. As rightly said by Nils Melzer during his powerful speech held in London on November 28th last, the reason why we have to become passionate about Assange’s case and fight with all our forces against his incarceration and his extradition is that this case is not only about him, it’s about all of us, the society we live in and that we’ll bequeath to our children.
Dentists Report, 31 July 2015 (PDF Warning)
Medical Report, 8 December 2015 (PDF warning)
Psycho-social Medical Report, 11 December 2015 (PDF Warning)
OHCHR Working Group’s Opinion on Julian Assange’s case (docx warning)