District Judge Vanessa Baraitser on Wednesday 23 March refused an application by lawyers for Julian Assange that he be remanded on bail as a result of his acute vulnerability to the coronavirus. Edward Fitzgerald QC for Mr Assange appeared alone before District Judge Baraitser at Westminster Magistrates’ Court, with other lawyers attending the proceedings by phone.
Mr Assange is in custody at Belmarsh Prison in London while he resists extradition to the USA to stand trial on 17 counts of breaching the Espionage Act and one count of computer hacking.
Mr Fitzgerald QC told the court that Mr Assange had suffered from respiratory tract infections while living in the Ecuadorean embassy in London and suffers from a heart condition which makes him vulnerable. He described prisons as “epidemiological pumps” allowing for the rapid spread of infection. If Mr Assange remains in custody, his counsel argued, there is a real risk that his heath and his life with be seriously endangered.
Clair Dobbin representing the US Government, resisting the application, argued that Mr Assange’s history provided substantial grounds for believing that he would fail to surrender if granted bail. Mr Assange famously sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in 2012 in an attempt to avoid extradition to Sweden.
District Judge Baraitser, refusing the application, noted that the global pandemic does not provide grounds for Mr Assange’s release from custody. His previous bail record and his desire to avoid extradition to the US mean that there are substantial grounds for believing that he would abscond.
The first part of Mr Assange’s extradition hearing was heard in February and it is scheduled to resume on 18 May. Mr Fitzgerald QC raised the prospect of postponing that hearing date due to the inability of witnesses to travel and difficulties in communicating with Mr Assange while Belmarsh is locked down.