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UK: Julian Assange: Judge refuses to release Wikileaks founder from prison over coronavirus outbreak

Wednesday 25 March 2020, by siawi3

Source: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/julian-assange-coronavirus-prison-bail-release-belmarsh-latest-a9424621.html

Julian Assange: Judge refuses to release Wikileaks founder from prison over coronavirus outbreak

‘This global pandemic does not of itself yet provide grounds for Mr Assange’s release,’ judge says

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent

25.03.20 3 hours ago

A judge has refused to release Julian Assange from prison over the coronavirus outbreak.

The Wikileaks founder’s lawyers had applied for him to be freed on bail because he was “vulnerable” to the virus inside HMP Belmarsh.

He is being held there while awaiting potential extradition to the US on charges relating to the 2010 Wikileaks publications over the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Mr Assange at Westminster Magistrates’ Court by video-link on Wednesday and was represented by Edward Fitzgerald QC, who wore a surgical mask.

The court heard that despite coronavirus being confirmed in other jails, there were not yet an known cases in HMP Belmarsh.

But Mr Fitzgerald said that 100 prison officers were off work, adding: “We say there’s a very real problem, a very real risk and the risk could be fatal.”

District judge Vanessa Baraitser refused the bail application, telling the court: “As matters stand today, this global pandemic does not of itself yet provide grounds for Mr Assange’s release.”

Supporters of Mr Assange said he had a previously reported lung complaint and was in an “already weakened medical condition”.

Kristinn Hrafnsson, editor in chief of Wikileaks, said: “To expose another human being to serious illness, and to the threat of losing their life, is grotesque and quite unnecessary. This is not justice, it is a barbaric decision.”

American and British authorities class Mr Assange as a flight risk because he skipped bail over Swedish sexual assault allegations to flee to London’s Ecuadorian embassy in 2012.

That investigation has been dropped, but he is now fighting to avoid being sent to the US to face 17 charges under the Espionage Act and conspiracy to commit computer intrusion after the publication of hundreds of thousands of classified documents.

There are mounting calls for lower-risk inmates to be released from British prisons as coronavirus spreads.

Jails in England and Wales have been put on lockdown, with all visits cancelled.

Watch more: Protesters march on parliament ahead of Assange extradition hearing

On Tuesday Jo Farrar, chief executive of the Prison and Probation Service, told the Commons Justice Committee that 13 inmates had tested positive for coronavirus and around 4,300 prison and probation staff were self-isolating.

Mobile phones are being made available to inmates to aid contact with loved ones, following deadly riots over restrictions in Italian prisons.

But gyms have been closed and activities including education and training suspended.

Justice Secretary Robert Buckland told the committee “quite a proportion of the estate where there is crowding – that presents a real challenge” and many inmates were vulnerable or had underlying health conditions.

He did not rule out considering releasing prisoners but said the risks involved would “have to be considered”.

Additional reporting by PA