The Unreported Half of the Assange Extradition Decision

In case you missed it, a UK District Court earlier this month rejected the US attempt to extradite Julian Assange. The judge in fact rejected the vast majority of the defence’s arguments, but upheld their opposition to extradition on only one ground: the “substantial risk” of Assange committing suicide if he were extradited. While widely reported as a judgement on Julian’s deteriorating mental health, the decision in fact had as much to do with the US prison system.

Make no mistake: Julian is in a bad way. Last year, the 200 members of Doctors for Assange published a letter to The Lancet condemning his “[psychological] torture and medical neglect.” Their statement echoes the finding of “psychological torture” by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture. All of this, remember, is being perpetrated against a man with Asperger’s and autism.

However, the “substantial risk” of suicide if he were extradited to the US says as much about US prison conditions as it does about Assange. The extradition hearing focused on these conditions extensively.

The UK judge considered it likely Assange would be held in a “supermax” prison. Not only that, he would also be subjected to “special administrative measures” (SAMs) designed for dangerous terrorists.

This means that, in the words of the judge, “Mr. Assange will be housed in conditions of significant isolation. Contact with his family will be limited to one monitored 15-minute phone call per month. Any time out of his cell will be spent exercising in a small room or cage alone. … The purpose of this regime is to prevent all physical contact between an inmate and others, and to minimise social interaction between inmates and staff.”

A “supermax” cell (photo courtesy of

A former warden testified, “The only form of human interaction they [SAMs prisoners] encountered was when correctional officers opened the viewing slot during their inspection rounds of the unit, when institution staff walked through the unit during their required weekly rounds, or when meals were delivered through the secure meal slot in the door.”

Ahmed Abu Khatallah, a participant in the Benghazi attacks, has been subjected to SAMs in supermax jail. His lawyer testified that in order to ensure he did not communicate with other prisoners whilst in the bare “exercise area,” his daily hour outside of his cell fell in the middle of the night. He declined being woken up just to be walked around an identically barren cell as his own.

Meanwhile, psychological support is negligible, largely limited to “self-help packets and video.” According to one of the defence witnesses, there is no counselling or therapy available; psychiatrists are instructed simply to prescribe the most cost-effective medication regime available.

For all these reasons in combination with Assange’s mental distress and existing conditions, the UK judge deemed his extradition to the US “oppressive” and therefore illegal.

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