Julian Assange is likely to face conditions, in pre-trial detention in the US, which are "essentially the same as solitary confinement", the Old Bailey heard on 28 September 2020.
Mr Assange Faces Months or Years in Pre-Trial Detention in the US
Mr Yancey Ellis, an experienced criminal defence lawyer who is based in Alexandria, Virginia told the court on Monday that he is “very familiar” with the Alexandria Jail (Alexandria Detention Center - or ADC) which both the government and the defence say Mr Assange is likely to be housed in should he be extradited to the US to face espionage.
“I have visited the Alexandria jail on many occasions”, the former Judge Advocate with the US Marines told Edward Fitzgerald QC, for the defence, adding that it is "the most common place for pre-trial defendants to be held in Alexandria".
If he is extradited the WikiLeaks publisher will tried at what is commonly referred to as the 'espionage court', where the jury will likely be made up of members of the CIA, the FBI, the Department of Defence and Homeland Security, or their families, according to CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou.
Cells in the X-Block are around 50 square feet or less, with a shelve containing a mattress, a metal toilet and a metal sink and "not much else besides that", Mr Ellis told the court.
He added that while prisoners are entitled to one to two hours a day out of their cells, with the other 22 or more inside of them, in practice inmates will get an hour or less out of their cells a day. This is because inmates in administrative segregation are meant to be excluded from other prisoners so, due to scheduling concerns, the second hour offered is often "at very odd hours" and so inmates often decline to make use of the second hour.
"You Almost Have to Scream at the Top of Your Lungs", to Communicate in Administrative Detention
Mr Fitzgerald asked the witness for his response to statements made by Assistant US Attorney Gordon Kromberg in which the AUSA said prisoners in X-Block can speak to each other via the windows or through the cell doors.
"Its almost impossible" to speak through the door if the food slot is not open, Mr Ellis said, adding that whenever he has visited inmates at X-Block he has had to ask prison staff to open the food slot. "For anyone to make that assertion it is almost as though they have never tried or are not familiar with the location where X-block is located", Mr Ellis asserted.
"I have tried [to speak to clients through the cell doors], you almost have to scream at the top of your lungs", Mr Ellis told the court. "That’s the point of the Administrative Segregation Unit which is to keep the inmate away from other inmates in the unit. Its not meant to give him access to other inmates" Mr Ellis said.
Similarly, Mr Ellis challenged the idea that Mr Assange would have access to programmes in administrative segregation because to his knowledge there are no individual programmes and the group programmes (eg for drug addiction or education) would be off-limits because inmates in X-Block are not entitled to have contact with other inmates.
For that reason Mr Ellis described, in his statement, the conditions in X-Block, where Mr Assange will likely be held, as "essentially the same as solitary confinement".
If Mr Assange is subjected to Special Administrative Measures (SAMs), which the government have accepted that Mr Assange may face, then any further restrictions such recordings of conversations with lawyers or family, restrictions on mail and communication with the outside world, would be added on top of that.
He also explained that often "the courts will defer to the jail in how they house inmates and secure facilities" and that he doesn't think the court would interfere with such arrangements.
Crucially the court was also told that the ADC jail "doesn’t employ a doctor" though there is contract for part-time access to a psychiatrist. Often with Mr Ellis' clients they go with several weeks without seeing a psychiatrist and there wasn’t “a close enough monitor on things like medication". The court has already heard expert testimony that the conditions Mr Assange would face, should he be extradited to the US, combined with his being mildly clinically depressed as well as being on the autistic spectrum, means that the award-winning journalist and publisher is at high risk of suicide.
Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei attended to the court hearings during the morning testimony of Mr Ellis. He explained to Sputnik that in his view the regime described "Basically [...] keeps someone still alive, but not really alive":
"Basically it keeps someone still alive but not really alive" Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei says regarding the solitary confinement-like conditions Mr Assange would be held in the US, as described by defence witness Yancey Ellis.— Mohamed Elmaazi (@MElmaazi) September 28, 2020
via @SputnikInt pic.twitter.com/yFonMDiUhw
"It's a horrible situation, I hope Assange will never be treated that way. It's inhuman and it's not fair for a political prisoner like [him]", Mr Ai Weiwei added.
Prosecution Suggests Mr Assange May Experience Above-Average Detention Conditions due to His Relative Celebrity
James Lewis QC briefly cross-examined Mr Ellis. The prosecution lawyer asked Mr Ellis whether he excluded interaction with lawyers from his definition of solitary confinement-like conditions. "I wouldn’t have counted interaction with your lawyers", Mr Ellis responded. He also explained that the maximum a lawyer can meet with a client is for three hours at a time unless they had "special permission" from the ADC to extend the time to up to six hours.
"You will be aware that Mr Assange’s case has attracted huge publicity and a lot of public support?" Mr Lewis asked. "I would agree with publicity" he responded. "And public support?" Mr Lewis followed up. "I'm not sure about that", Mr Ellis answered.
"I guess they could, I’m not sure what that would do" Mr Ellis responded. When Mr Lewis questioned whether Mr Assange would not be treated as an "ordinary prisoner" the defence lawyer insisted that "To my knowledge the Alexandria jail doesn’t give anybody special treatment". "So, you don’t think because of his ability to attract publicity and support it's possible he could get better care than an ordinary prisoner?" Mr Lewis asked. "I do not", Mr Ellis answered.
Mr Assange faces to up to 175 years in prison if he is convicted of all of the charges levied against him in the US. The indictment almost entirely relates to his role in publishing the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, Guantanamo Bay detainee files and diplomatic cables that revealed war crimes as well as other criminality and abuse committed by the US government and US-backed forces around the world. The substantive hearings in his case are scheduled to finish on Friday.