Two Australian MPs, Andrew Wilkie and George Christensen, sent letters to the UK House of Commons and the government on April 9, Thursday, calling for the urgent release of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, an Australian national. Both Wilkie and Christensen are co-chairs of the Bring Julian Assange Home Parliamentary Group and have been advocating his release for several months.
The letter was sent to the UK House of Commons Justice Committee chair, Bob Neil, and to the justice secretary in the Boris Johnson cabinet, Robert Buckland. The letter asked for a “compassionate release” for Assange, claiming that his case “fits all of the grounds” for an early release as advised by the World Health Organization (WHO).
It has been pointed out in the letters that Assange is in prison under judicial remand and has no history of violence and does not pose a threat of any kind to the community. Besides, he suffers from several health issues that could make a coronavirus infection fatal in his case. These conditions justify an early release on humanitarian grounds, according to the MPs.
In an advisory released by the WHO, it has been held that older prison inmates and those with different health problems, who are under judicial detention and/or incarcerated for non-violent crimes, should be released on humanitarian grounds in the wake of the pandemic. Several governments world-over have sanctioned the conditional release or early release of prisoners in order to avoid the spread of COVID-19 in overcrowded prisons.
The UK has over 80,000 prison inmates, 2,000 of them with underlying health issues making them extremely vulnerable to infection. With nearly 61,000 confirmed cases, the country is yet to come up with a policy to prevent outbreaks in prisons. The government has repeatedly denied even considering early release for certain inmates. An outbreak in prisons could be the cause of as many as 800 avoidable deaths, according to an independent study.
The first death due to COVID-19 in a UK prison was reported on March 26. So far, 108 prisoners have been found infected, along with 19 prison workers. Of these, nine prisoners have died, including one on April 7 in Belmarsh prison where Assange is being held.
Assange is currently held in judicial remand and is under trial in an extradition request by the US. A recent appeal for his bail by his defense lawyers on the grounds of the COVID-19 threat in prisons was rejected by the court.