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Assange’s Fourth Day at the Old Bailey: COVID in the Courtroom

As James Lewis QC for the prosecution, representing the US government, revealed, “I’m just saying about my charger. It’s in court and I’m going to run out of battery.” It was one of those moments that said much about the fourth day of proceedings at the Old Bailey regarding one Julian Assange, publisher, Australian national and wanted by the US Department of Justice for incongruous charges of espionage.

It all had the appropriate Orwellian shades and show trial trimmings. The US prosecution team had gone remote; Assange’s legal team was physically present and masked. Technology again did its bedevilling magic at the Central Criminal Court. At one point, Joel Smith for the prosecution was attempting to get the attention of Judge Vanessa Baraitser to inform her that nothing could be heard in the court room. The screen of chief prosecutor Lewis had also frozen.

Unlike the previous three days of these extradition proceedings, the central contentions were not Assange the public interest journalist, the discloser of informant names, or President Donald J. Trump’s war on the Fourth Estate. It was the revelation that COVID-19 had found its way into the Old Bailey. On Wednesday night, Judge Baraitser was told that a member of one of the legal teams may have been exposed to the coronavirus. As was announced on Court News, “Julian Assange’s extradition hearing at the Old Bailey today will not be going ahead because the husband of one of the US lawyers has come down with COVID-like symptoms. Once he gets the result of a test the judge will determine how best to proceed.”

Assange would have had reason to reflect upon this moment with bitter mockery. His conditions in Her Majesty’s Belmarsh Prison have been a picture of shoddy treatment, both physically and symbolically. Access to his legal team has been scandalously scant, exacerbated by pandemic lockdown conditions. The entire institutional treatment of the Australian has been considered nothing less than that of a tortured figure, “shocking and excessive”, to use the words of the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute. His supporters, fearful, see him at risk of contracting coronavirus and suffering, in his frail state, the gruelling effects of COVID-19.

His efforts to seek bail in order to escape the dangers of viral transmission have been foiled by the pitiless Baraitser. In March, Edward Fitzgerald QC attempted to convince the judge that medical “experts consider that [Assange] is particularly at risk of developing coronavirus and, if he does, that it develops into very severe complications for him.” Should he contract it, “it would be very doubtful that Belmarsh would be able to cope with his condition.”

Swatting such concerns away, Baraitser saw little reason for concern: there were no instances of COVID-19 at Belmarsh, a reckless conclusion to draw given the self-isolation measures imposed upon a hundred personnel at the time. The group Doctors for Assange were shaken by the ruling. In their March 27 statement, they vented. “Despite our prior unequivocal statement that Mr Assange is at increased risk of serious illness and death were he to contract coronavirus and the evidence of medical experts, Baraitser dismissed the risk, citing UK guidelines for prisons in responding to the global pandemic.” The editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, Kristinn Hrafnsson was furious. “To expose another human being to serious illness, and to the threat of losing their life, is grotesque and quite unnecessary.”

In June, Doctors for Assange reiterated the call that Assange be granted bail, having met “internationally recommended criteria for prisoner release during COVID-19.” Globally, prisons were being emptied of inmates to prevent the march of COVID-19. Assange remained the exception.

On September 10, 2020, history grimaced with irony. It was the prosecutors for the United States, Assange’s incessant harassers, who had been potentially infected. Notwithstanding this, Judge Baraitser was not averse to pushing onto a fifth day of proceedings, a point that agitated the legal teams and seemed to be as quixotic as it was indifferent.

Fitzgerald, representing Assange, urged the court to accept the logical assumption that “COVID will be in the courtroom.” The staff of the court would themselves be “at risk, and you yourself may well be at risk.” It was a good ploy on Fitzgerald’s part to mention the court as the primary consideration, reserving the concerns of his client for last. “Finally, our client Mr Assange, who is vulnerable you are aware, would be at risk in court.” His request for adjournment struck a common chord with Lewis. Proceedings will be postponed until September 14, awaiting the test results. In the meantime, the defence and prosecution will make interest of justice submissions on how they wish to proceed in the event the test is positive for coronavirus.

In the meantime, the rest of the Old Bailey will continue to grind. A spokesperson for the City of London Corporation was businesslike in moving forward. “The Central Criminal Court is deep cleaned every day in accordance with government guidelines and will remain open.”

It was left to Kevin Gosztola of Shadowproof to sum up the day’s sentiment in wry fashion: “Looking forward to the courtroom sketch of Assange in a glass box with only the judge in the room as we proceed virtually. That’ll be [sic] quite appropriate image for this case.” Lewis, in the meantime, might be able to obtain his charger.

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10 comments

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  1. Jack Cade

    I cannot adequately express my disgust at this pretence at offering justice to Assange. The British legal system is being manipulated and abused by two governments which are angry that their shameful acts in foreign countries have been made known, not by Assange, but by their own peoples writings. Justice does not prevail in UK courts or UX courts; cases are won by the best actors. But In this case, I suspect the script had already been written and the verdict decided. Shameful charade.

  2. New England Cocky

    I agree with Jack Cade. This CIA strategy is designed to break Julian Assange mentally and financially. There is a hope that maybe he will commit suicide in desperation ,as others have done in the past.

    FREE JULIAN ASSANGE NOW!!!

    Where is the Scummo COALition Liarbral Nazional$ misgovenrment representing the best interests of an Australian voter?

  3. paul walter

    Really, indicates the irredeemable collapse of what tiny shards of Little Britain’s credibility.

    What ever else had gone wrong, were remained assured in the myth that Britain adhered to principles of justice and remained a civilising influence, but the farce involving Assange on top of much examination of Britain’s hidden class and genocidal colonialist record has blown away the dry husk of British credibility.

    Little Britain, back in the pigswill mud of seventeenth century myopic parochialism and feudalism.

  4. Jack Cade

    Paul walter

    I don’t think the UK can come back from this scandalous trial. It has, since Thatcher, destroyed every shred of respectability it ever had.
    George Monbiot – a very highly respected columnist, said the other day, in The Guardian, that the the UK is now utterly corrupt, and is hard to argue with the reasons he cited. And now, with the Assange case, it has shown itself to be prepared to dispense WITH justice rather than dispensing it, doing dirty work for Uncle Sam by trying a man for revealing Uncle Sam’s dirty work. Shameful!

  5. paul walter

    Jack Cade

    I have reached the stage where I despise something I once respected.

    The thought of Britain for most of this century is nauseating.

  6. Jack Cade

    paul walter

    Me too. I used to think that the British were a decent people. Perhaps the most decent. That no matter what government was in power, justice would be be the nation’s byword. Now I’m convinced otherwise. Thatcher, Blair, Johnson. There’s not a cigarette paper between them.

  7. wam

    How sad are we to stand by and let an Australian suffer for an act of journalism?
    In the face of carr’s petition the pompous scummo maintains assange is getting all the consular help he is entitled to, as an Australian he is silent on the help assange deserve under the attacks by america and the consequences of extradition.

  8. paul walter

    Wam,

    All Australian politicians just about have sucked up shamelessly to the CIA/GCHQ smear camping against Manning, Assange, Snowden and other whistleblowers.

    Bernard Collaery and witness K are only the latest in a long line of people brutalised for telling the truth about the nature of the global TNC system and the bullying extends to people like Emma Alberici or just doing their job and exposing obvious and blatant, blatant lies as the nature of this system locally.

    In fact public broadcasting and fact based science and education have all been knee-capped as fact based, some thing the greedist system will just not tolerate.

  9. wam

    Paul,
    The right word is brutalised and the conservatives in my experiences relatives, friends and at the golf club have first hand knowledge of the activities of the com police and armed services and applaud the tactics to punish the men who exposed the illegal activities.
    The to a man/woman know that the ABC lies about the government and is ‘left’ they actually have no idea about left and share sky news posts. They used to share far right pommie and septic but have gone quiet.
    Here is today’s effort out of the blue no accompanying reference
    “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY ANYBODY ELSE HAVE BALLS ENOUGH TO POST”
    The other day an Aboriginal friend shared craig kelly rave about police on one knee and arresting a white pregnant woman.

  10. paul walter

    Post of the year, wam.

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