Published On: Wed, Apr 1st, 2020

‘No one knows’ how widespread Covid-19 may be in Belmarsh, WikiLeaks editor says as concerns over prison conditions raised

The Covid-19 crisis has created a “dire situation” for inmates in British prisons, WikiLeaks editor Kristinn Hrafnsson has warned, including Belmarsh prison where Julian Assange is being held despite a request for emergency bail.

In a video posted by WikiLeaks’ official campaign to stop Assange’s extradition to the US, Hrafnsson said prisoners were being kept mostly to their cells and had “no access to any activities.”

It doesn’t take an expert to understand that the prison environment is the worst environment for illnesses such as Covid-19.

Judge Vanessa Baraitser denied a request for bail made by Assange’s legal team last week, ruling that the pandemic “does not provide grounds” for his release, despite the fact that the journalist suffers from a chronic lung condition and may be a high-risk case if he contracted the virus.

Baraitser justified her denial by saying that there were no known cases of the coronavirus infection in Belmarsh. Assange’s lawyer Edward Fitzgerald QC claimed recently, however, that the defense team were denied entry to the prison because 100 staff were self-isolating due to fears over the spread of the highly contagious disease.

Hrafnsson also slammed reports that in some prisons, inmates with regular flu-like symptoms were being placed in cells with others who had tested positive for the virus, leaving them to potentially contract the more serious infection. The situation was “outrageous, if not criminal,” he said.

“No one knows how widespread the virus is inside the prison, no one is testing. Journalists who are asking questions are getting misleading answers, if they are getting any answers at all,” Hrafnsson added.

The WikiLeaks editor’s warnings come as investigative website Declassified UK revealed that Assange is only one of two prisoners at Belmarsh being held on a bail violation.

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Figures provided to the website by the British Ministry of Justice (MOJ) show that about 20 percent of prisoners were held for murder, with two-thirds of all inmates incarcerated for violent offences. Twenty prisoners were being held for sex crimes against children, and 16 for terrorism-related offences. 

Only one other prisoner is being held in a similar category to Assange, described in the documents as having failed “to answer court/police bail as soon as practicable.”

Declassified UK also revealed that Belmarsh may be a “particularly dangerous” prison for inmates like Assange with health conditions since it has been “repeatedly criticised by prisons inspectors since 2005” for “not having adequate anti-infection precautions in place.”

Official checks of the site in 2007, 2009, and 2013 found inadequate infection measures in place. A report in 2018 found that the prison had finally implemented “suitable infection control” policies — but a report by the Independent Monitoring Boards in 2019 described the state of the showers and toilets in Belmarsh as “appalling.”

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