On 6th April Nina Cross writes
A TALE OF TWO DETENTIONS: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
“…this will be decided properly, independently by the British legal system respected throughout the world for its independence and integrity,” said then UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt immediately following the arrest of Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, on 11th April 2019.
The high profile trials of the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, tried alongside his Yukos business partner Platon Lebedev, were widely criticised in the West, including by Britain, and therefore serve as a tool to compare against the UK’s treatment of Assange. Part 1 of this analysis will attempt to compare the way the British authorities treat Julian Assange to the way they have protected oligarchs fleeing Russia and protested the treatment of oligarchs convicted in Russia. In one case, the British authorities have applied human rights in their courts, while in another, they have removed human rights from their courts.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky – a case study
The courtroom of Assange versus the courtrooms of Khodorkovsky
Clear Double Standard
Continued deference to legal assistance by Judge Vanessa Baraitser and the threat of Covid-19
According to reports by observers at Assange’s bail application hearing on March 25th, Baraitser again deferred to unqualified parties for legal assistance. On this occasion, she invited journalists to offer their opinion on how to manage the issue of anonymity of Assange’s partner should his partner’s statement be read to the court in support of his application. Baraitser’s continued reliance upon unqualified assistance in the legal fate of Assange suggests that she does not believe herself to be competent or even responsible for the consequences of court decisions.
His lawyers requested bail on the basis Assange has a chronic lung condition and is in a fragile state, putting him at higher risk of complications and even death if he were to catch the virus Covid-19, which has now reached the prison population. Judge Baraitser’s refusal to allow bail was condemned, particularly as several countries released low security risk prisoners to reduce their risk of infection. This included Iran which temporarily released British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Since then the British government has announced that Assange will not be released because he is on remand. However, the criteria for temporary medical release specifically refers to limited opportunity of custodial prisoners:
“…because such care cannot await the patient’s release or cannot be provided within the prison.”
The assumption is therefore that remand prisoners will not be remanded for long and if convicted may be eligible for temporary medical release. It can also be assumed that ‘patient’s release‘ relates to individual and specific cases. It is neither logical nor humane to interpret this as meaning that remanded prisoners should not have the same criteria for release during the spread of a deadly virus that anyone can catch. What’s more, Assange’s legal defence has warned that his case could continue for many years, resulting in his indefinite arbitrary detention, rendering the time-related criteria meaningless. Further, prison rule 21 provides the procedural framework for Assange to be released due to the threat of Covid-19:
Special illnesses and conditions
21.—(1) The medical officer or a medical practitioner such as is mentioned in rule 20(3) shall report to the governor on the case of any prisoner whose health is likely to be injuriously affected by continued imprisonment or any conditions of imprisonment. The governor shall send the report to the Secretary of State without delay, together with his own recommendations.
This should remind us that the health of each prisoner in British prisons is not simply the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice, which counts itself as just one member of the national partnership for prisoner healthcare in England. Should Assange die in Belmarsh as a result of Covid-19 (or any other condition related to his long-term medical situation), responsibility will be the result of state-sponsored medical neglect.
Comparison of prison authorities: Access to lawyers and documents
In the case of Khodorkovsky, legal documents were consistently examined by the authorities when passed to him from his lawyers, which the ECHR ruled as a violation of Article 6 client-lawyer confidentiality. In the case of Assange, his documents were stolen by the Ecuadorian government and passed to the US authorities – the very country which is trying to extradite him. Violation of Assange’s confidentiality with his lawyers has been demonstrated through the widely reported investigation into the Spanish security company US Global, accused of spying on him inside the Ecuadorian embassy, which included recording his meetings with lawyers. The content of the surveillance was then passed to the authorities trying to extradite him. All of this has been ignored by the British extradition courts.
By comparing the cases of Assange and Khodorkovsky we can see a clear double standard being applied by the British authorities. While they have refused extraditions to Russia on human rights grounds, the same authorities have seen fit to strip away the human rights and the dignity of Julian Assange, in full public view, all while boasting of higher moral standards.