UK court gives Julian Assange ‘shocking and vindictive’ sentence for skipping bail

Julian Assange
John McEvoy

On 1 May, WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange was sentenced to 50 weeks in jail for skipping bail in 2012. The hearing was held at Southwark Crown Court. Protesters and journalists gathered outside the court throughout the morning to follow the proceedings.

The maximum sentence for skipping bail in Britain is one year in prison. However, it is often punishable by a fine; the severity of the sentencing depends on the nature of the original charges.

Assange skipped bail on a legal case that no longer exists while seeking political asylum. Some have argued that political asylum constitutes “reasonable cause” to skip bail, and is therefore not a breach of the law. WikiLeaks has called the sentence “as shocking as it is vindictive”. It added that:

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Julian Assange’s sentence, for seeking and receiving asylum, is twice as much as the sentencing guidelines. The so-called speedboat killer, convicted of manslaughter, was only sentenced to six months for failing to appear in court.

Time served?

Assange spent seven years inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London in what the United Nations has called “arbitrary detention”. During this time, Doctor Sondra Crosby – who has evaluated detainees in the likes of Guantánamo Bay – claimed that Assange “suffered severe psychological and physical harm”. Crosby added that “the British government had repeatedly rejected requests to give Assange safe passage to a hospital for treatment”.

The journalist refused to leave the embassy due to concerns that a US extradition request – and thus possible torture or the death sentence – was waiting for him. He was nonetheless willing to be questioned by Swedish prosecutors in London regarding allegations of rape and sexual molestation in Sweden (the case was then dropped in 2017). It is quite normal in the Swedish legal system to question people abroad – by video message if necessary.

Assange pleaded not guilty to the skipping bail offence since he had agreed to be interviewed in the embassy. District judge Michael Snow nonetheless found Assange guilty, taking the time to go beyond his legal obligations and say:

His behaviour is that of a narcissist who cannot get beyond his own selfish interests.

Extradition

After UK police dragged Assange out of the Ecuadorian embassy on 11 April, the US unsealed an extradition request. This vindicated what Assange’s legal team had been saying for years. As journalist Jonathan Cook wrote:

For seven years… We were told there was no real threat of Assange’s extradition to the United States, that it was all in our fevered imaginations.

According to Assange’s legal team, the extradition request proves that Assange was not free to leave the embassy and exercise political asylum with safe passage to Ecuador. And according to his Swedish lawyer Per Samuelson:

If he is regarded as detained, that means he has served his time, so I see no other option for Sweden but to close the case.

The judge nonetheless reportedly concluded today:

I reject [the] argument you were living in prison conditions.

What next?

Assange faces a separate hearing on 2 May regarding possible extradition to the US. The journalist, who has exposed some of the darkest sides of the US legal system, may soon be forced to suffer them.

According to academic Norman Finkelstein:

His most likely destination is the “Alcatraz of the Rockies,” otherwise known as the United States Penitentiary Administrative Facility (ADMAX) in Florence, Colorado. Among its 400 inmates are Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, Boston Marathon terrorist Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, FBI-agent-turned-Russian-spy Robert Hanssen and Oklahoma City co-bomber Terry Nichols. The prison’s regime is as ruthless as its prisoners: 23 hour daily confinement in a concrete box cell with one window four inches wide, six bed checks a day with a seventh at weekends, one hour of exercise in an outdoor cage, showers spraying water in one-minute spurts and “shakedowns” at the discretion of prison staff.

Though shocking, today’s sentence may soon be dwarfed by many of far greater magnitude.

Featured image via Flickr – Cancillería de Ecuador

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