Assange denied bail amid coronavirus fears
London, March 26 (IANS): A UK court has denied bail to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is fighting extradition to the US, after his attorneys expressed concerns that he would be at particular risk if he contracted the novel coronavirus in prison.
On Wednesday, Judge Vanessa Baraitser of the Westminster Magistrates Court rejected the lawyers’ argument that their client could easily become infected with the virus at London’s Belmarsh Prison and that his life would be at risk in the event of contagion due to his poor health after eight years of confinement, reports Efe news.
The request was made after the British government said it planned to temporarily release some inmates in a bid to reduce the spread of the deadly virus in the country’s prison system.
In issuing her ruling, the district judge said she had no reason to doubt the effectiveness of the measures Belmarsh has adopted to combat the coronavirus and said the 48-year-old Australian is not the only inmate at risk from the pandemic.
She accepted the argument of Clair Dobbin, the attorney representing US authorities, who said Assange poses a flight risk and will not return and attend his extradition hearing if he was released.
Dobbin also argued that the WikiLeaks founder was not among the demographic group (people 60 years or older) for whom the virus poses a particularly serious risk.
But Assange’s attorney, Edward Fitzgerald, said his client suffers from mental health issues and a pulmonary disease that would make him especially vulnerable to the disease, an argument supported by written medical testimony.
Assange is wanted in the US on an 18-count indictment, including violations of the Espionage Act, for “offenses that relate to Assange’s alleged role in one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the US”, according to a Department of Justice statement issued in May 2019.
If found guilty on each of the 18 counts, Assange could be sentenced to as much as 180 years behind bars.
Assange had initially been charged in April 2019 with violating cyber security laws in 2009 and 2010 to assist then-US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in gaining access to classified information intended for publication by WikiLeaks.
Conviction on that charge would have entailed a maximum prison sentence of five years.