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Doctor Who Evaluated Julian Assange Told UN His Confinement Was Torture

In the Ecuadorian embassy, the “cumulative severity of the pain and suffering inflicted on Mr. Assange—both physical and psychological—is in violation of the 1984 Convention Against Torture,” she wrote.

by Jason Koebler
Apr 15 2019, 9:23pm

Image: Jack Taylor/Getty

A member of a team of physicians that has evaluated Julian Assange’s medical and psychological condition over the past two years told three international human rights groups that the Wikileaks founder has sustained “negative psychological and physical effects” from his seven-year detention in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Motherboard has learned.

The doctor believes that the “cumulative severity of the pain and suffering inflicted on Mr. Assange—both physical and psychological—is in violation of the 1984 Convention Against Torture.”

In the last two months, the doctor, Sondra Crosby, has written letters to former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, and to the Organization of American States detailing the four evaluations she made of Assange between October 2017 and February 2019. Crosby, who specializes in refugee health and forensic medicine at Boston University and has examined nearly 1,000 torture survivors, wrote that the conditions of Assange’s confinement had “become observably worse since [her] initial visit.”

Motherboard obtained the letters from her colleague, Sean Love, a doctor at Johns Hopkins who began a project to evaluate the effects of Assange’s detainment on his health in 2017 and recruited Crosby and British psychologist Brock Chisholm to perform the evaluations. Love said that the team obtained permission from Wikileaks and Assange to publish the letters in full.

Crosby said she could not speak to Motherboard for this article; Love told Motherboard at an in-person meeting that he believes Crosby will testify on behalf of Assange’s defense in legal proceedings relating to his arrest for allegedly conspiring with Chelsea Manning to obtain classified US military cables from the Iraq War.

From 2012 until last week, Assange had been detained in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Over the last decade—including while Assange was in the embassy—Wikileaks played an important and often controversial role in publishing documents in full, which include the Iraq War cables as well as emails belonging to former Hillary Clinton chief of staff John Podesta in the lead-up to the 2016 election. Last week, Assange was expelled from the Ecuadorian embassy and taken into custody by British authorities—the United States is seeking to extradite him. The United Nations's Special Rapporteur on Torture had been scheduled to meet with Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy on April 25th.

In her letter to the human rights groups, Crosby wrote that Assange has “multiple medical conditions” as a result of his confinement and that Assange’s “position [was] worse than a conventional prison in many respects.”

“Mr Assange has suffered a number of serious deleterious effects of sunlight deprivation over the nearly 7 years of confinement,” she wrote, adding that he has a potentially deadly dental condition that needs immediate surgery. “The severe daily pain endured by Mr. Assange from this dental condition is inhumane, notwithstanding that the situation could be life threatening if left untreated.”

Motherboard has not independently confirmed the findings Crosby sent to the human rights groups, and Wikileaks did not respond to a request for comment. The Ecuadorian embassy in London did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Ecuadorian president Lenin Moreno told the press that Assange had turned the embassy into a “center for spying.”

“Any attempt to destabilise is a reprehensible act for Ecuador, because we are a sovereign nation and respectful of the politics of each country,” he said.

Specifically, Crosby said she believes that Assange’s treatment was in violation of Articles 1 and 16 of the United Nations’s Convention Against Torture, which defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person” for political reasons. Love told Motherboard that he agreed with Crosby's assessment.

Love, who has medically evaluated people seeking asylum in the United States, told Motherboard that “it’s under-appreciated—the health effects of having stayed in the embassy for seven years without access to daylight and appropriate medical care for that time period. It’s not so simple that he’s out, he’s in the UK court and prison system and going to receive the care he needs and he’s going to be OK ... there are lingering, enduring consequences.”

Love was initially interested in evaluating Assange to study the “consequences of prolonged, arbitrary detention” on Assange’s health. Love recruited Crosby and Chisholm to actually perform the evaluations, though he has stayed involved in the process throughout.

“Initially, I was thinking about writing an academic piece about that topic with potential generalizability to other asylees and asylum seekers,” he said. “In the process of doing the research, we quickly learned his situation is incredibly unique and not well-generalizable to other groups or other individuals.”

Chisholm told me that Assange’s mental stressors came largely as a result of the fact that he didn’t know when or if he would ever get out of the embassy—or if he would be kicked out and arrested.

“The greatest threat of psychological injury arises not from just the confinement but the arbitrariness of it,” he said. “It differs from a seven year prison sentence because of not knowing when it’s going to end. Mr. Assange believes that he could be extradited and tortured or even executed. I’m not here to give an opinion on how likely that is, but when I use the word torture I’m using the term in the way Chelsea Manning is currently being held in solitary confinement. He believes that could happen to him.”

Chisholm said that Assange's case can't be compared to, say, terrorism suspects who have been confined in CIA Black Sites or secret prisons—they are different situations.

"I have worked with people that have been held by the CIA in detention centers without sunlight for a year, people who haven't seen sunlight for four-five years, but of course conditions there are very different from the conditions in an embassy," Chisholm said. "Equally, I guess the stress [and public attention on Assange] is different so it’s difficult to think of a comparison. I wouldn’t want to start drawing parallels between the people held in torture chambers and so on because it is very different."

Love said he has felt compelled to speak out about Assange’s treatment in asylum and that he is worried about what might happen to him in prison in the United Kingdom or the United States if he is extradited here.

“As physicians, we have a unique skill-set we can bring to bear on human rights issues. I think the treatment of Assange in and of itself is reprehensible, but I’m concerned more generally that his treatment and the treatment of him in the UK by the US and Ecuador now sets a precedent for the treatment of asylees everywhere,” he said. “I’m concerned that disregard for certain basic human rights in the United States could occur, and I’m concerned that he would not be as well off in the United States as he would be in the UK for sure.”

In January 2018, Chisholm, Love, and Crosby wrote an op-ed in The Guardian claiming that Assange “badly needs care” and that his confinement “is dangerous physically and mentally to him.” Crosby’s letter to the United Nations was written earlier this month, and claims that “Assange’s suffering and health has predictably worsened” since that op-ed.

Crosby also claimed that Assange was under constant surveillance in the embassy, and that she believes she was surveilled during her last evaluation of him, in February. In a sworn affidavit sent to the Organization of American States, she wrote that during that meeting, she and Assange “spoke over the noise of a radio playing to decrease the amount of information intercepted by the listening devices in the room … the hostile, nonconfidential, and intimidating environment was palpable.”

She also claimed that when she left the embassy to get food, her notes had been taken: “Upon returning to the embassy, I returned to our meeting room and discovered that my confidential medical notes had been removed,” she wrote. “The notes were located in a space utilized by embassy surveillance staff (and had presumably been read).”

Crosby’s letters asked the human rights organizations to “look into the case of Julian Assange.” The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights did not respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.