RSF attempted to monitor the callover hearing scheduled for 26 November at Westminster Magistrates’ Court; however the hearing was adjourned until 11 December as Assange’s lawyers reported that due to the rapid increase of Covid infections in Belmarsh prison, it was not safe for him to be taken to the video conference room to appear before the court - a concern that had also prevented Assange from attending hearings during lockdown earlier in the year.
Assange’s partner Stella Moris reported that a total of 56 cases of Covid infections have been confirmed in Assange’s wing of Belmarsh prison, including prisoners and staff. She said he has been confined to his cell 24 hours a day for nine consecutive days, since 18 November, apart from 20 minutes outside on 23 November.
“We are alarmed by reports of a rapid increase in Covid infections at Belmarsh prison, resulting in Julian Assange being held in de facto solitary confinement. His physical and mental health history leaves him highly vulnerable, and it is clearly unsafe for him to be detained in these conditions. We continue to call for Assange’s unconditional release, but this situation adds urgency to the need for his humanitarian release without further delay”, said Rebecca Vincent, RSF’s Director of International Campaigns.
Assange has a history of respiratory infections that leave him at high risk if exposed to Covid, as well as a history of mental health issues - including depression and frequent suicidal thoughts - that could worsen in conditions of prolonged confinement in his cell. On 2 November, a prisoner who was reportedly a friend of Assange’s and was held on the same wing of Belmarsh prison committed suicide - an incident that is currently being investigated.
The next callover hearing at Westminster Magistrates’ Court on 11 December will be the last before the extradition decision is due to be given at a hearing at the Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey) on 4 January 2021.
RSF was the only NGO to monitor four weeks of extradition proceedings against Assange at the Old Bailey in September, despite severe restrictions placed on observers by the court. Following these proceedings, the court stopped sharing remote access details with NGO observers even for the monthly callover hearings, meaning that despite the current national lockdown in the UK, the only option to monitor proceedings is in person.
The UK is ranked 35th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index.