Assange’s Twelfth Day at the Old Bailey: Autism, Suicide and Prisons

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September 23.  Central Criminal Court, London. 

Following the script sheet of the previous day, the non sequitur, pop medical view of the prosecution was again in sharp evidence at the Old Bailey.  In an effort to make the road for Julian Assange’s extradition to the United States for 17 charges under the US Espionage Act and one under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act smoother, James Lewis QC persisted in attacking suggestions that the WikiLeaks publisher was autistic, or should be treated as such.

The prosecution knows that cases such as that of Lauri Love in 2018 and Gary McKinnon in 2012, both centred on extradition efforts by the US government for hacking charges, failed on the basis that both accused would be at high risk of suicide in US prison facilities, a point exacerbated by Asperger’s syndrome and depression.  In Love’s case, the UK High Court found that “the fact of extradition would bring on severe depression, and that Mr Love would probably be determined to commit suicide, here or in America.”  Being kept on suicide watch was woefully inadequate as a measure of protection, and did not constitute a “form of treatment”. 

In McKinnon’s case, the usually icy Home Secretary, Theresa May, melted to the presence of Asperger’s syndrome and depressive illness, concluding that “extradition would give rise to such a high risk of him ending his life that a decision to extradite him would be incompatible with [his] human rights.”

Deeley for the Defence

Lewis had been less than impressive on September 22 in dealing Dr Michael Kopelman, Emeritus Professor of Neuropsychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London, whose medical qualifications he saw fit to disparage as less relevant than his “advocacy”.  Now, he faced the testimony of Dr Quinton Deeley, a National Health Service consultant psychiatrist who conducted two Autism Diagnostic Schedule (ADOS) tests on Assange when in Belmarsh prison.  Six hours of phone interviews with Assange also took place in July 2020. 

Intelligence, a penchant for analytic thought and the means of understanding systems, were detected.  “With deliberation he can bring himself to understand what other people are thinking and feeling but in his day experience he is oblivious.”  Deeley observed “rigidity of thoughts” and “obsessive rumination”, traits common in autism spectrum disorder.  This caused him a “sense of horror”.  For the publisher, extradition and prison would be “an unbearable ordeal, and I think his inability to bear that in the context of [an] acute worsening depression would confer a high risk of suicide.”  Assange saw his predicament as “unjust”, believing that an “example is being made out of him”.

Deeley revealed how Assange was concerned about the superseding indictment.  He feared for Joshua Schulte, alleged to have disclosed the Vault 7 files on the hacking capabilities and tools of the Central Intelligence Agency.  Schulte was found guilty on counts of lying to the FBI and contempt of court but the jury tied on eight other counts in March, including the transmission of national defense information.  Assistant US Attorney David Denton promised that the Department of Justice would “retry Mr Schulte on the espionage charges.”

A past suggestive of autism was also dredged. Autism spectrum disorder was, for instance, manifest in the Assange family.  A friend of Assange’s from Australia, Suelette Dreyfus, had also been interviewed by Deeley.  Certain behavioural traits (“outrageous behaviour and lack of propriety”) were noted in the boy from Townsville: a propensity to rearrange furniture in a café; going behind a bar to change music; impulsively taking pictures off the walls to inspect.  Small-talk and chatter about the weather was reviled.  Interruptions in conversation were frequent.  He would talk over fellow conversationalists.  Not due to arrogance, mind you: he merely had to express his views.

The prosecution then began parading various mistreatments of autism, inflicting a few mutilations upon it on the way.  A person on the autism spectrum is evidently incapable of authoring books, giving speeches and hosting media gigs.  Lewis went so far as to play a video of Assange’s address at London’s Frontline Club in 2010, an occasion for answering questions about the releases of WikiLeaks, protective redactions for informants and partnerships with media organisations.  The suggestion by the prosecution was that someone able to field questions and participate in such sessions would surely not find themselves on the autistic spectrum.

Deeley attempted to put such erroneous views to rest.  Autism was no bar to demonstrable expertise and confident authority.  “It’s possible to both have a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome and to demonstrate expertise and be authoritative and knowledgeable about certain topics.”  Assange’s performance at the Frontline Club was not exceptional for “high-functioning intelligent people on the autism spectrum.”  In such settings as a Q&A format, Assange was familiar with both content and format, able to engage in “monologue”.  Social niceties and etiquette were not essential.

An example was put forth.  Deeley suggested Dr Temple Grandin, an expert on animal behaviour and notable autism spokesperson.  On the stage she performs, confident with her subject matter, capable of holding an audience, even able to share the odd joke.  Discussion with attendees after the performance is another matter.  Lewis, losing patience, barked.  “Are you trying to help this court or advocate a cause?”

Other angles attempting to show Assange as empathetic (this prosecution is ever a friend of contradiction) were also pursued.  Having sole custody of a child, for instance, suggested inconsistency with an ASD diagnosis.  His mother had also described her son as an “extraordinarily selfless father”.  Deeley was also dismissive of such a reading: those on the autism spectrum could still be capable parents, be affected by suffering, appreciate a sense of duty and have principle.

The “when all else fails” approach was also deployed.  Deeley’s impartiality was challenged.  Was he excusing behaviour or merely confirming a diagnosis?  No: the witness was merely being comprehensive rather than selective on specific items of evidence.  But Lewis was in the mood for being cuttingly selective, going so far as to press the witness on his lack of eye contact in giving answers.  Everyone did it, and such behaviour was hardly indicative of being on the autism spectrum. A bemused Deeley could only reply that he would not return a high score on an ADOS test; eye contact alone was not a definitive indicator.

Fazel for the prosecution

The prosecution then drew upon their own weaponry in the diagnoses war, though it seemed blunted.  Seena Fazel, forensic psychiatry professor at Oxford University, took the stand as the first prosecution witness.  He interviewed Assange during the summer, finding him “moderately depressed”.  By late 2019, he accepted that Assange was “severely depressed”, being medicated for his condition, and suffering “episodic” bouts of depression anxiety.  For all that, he deemed Assange capable of managing his suicide risk, and possessing “autistic-like traits” on the milder side of the autism spectrum.

The prosecution proceeded to list a range of programs and prison amenities suggesting that what awaited Assange was an adequate, even pleasant Supermax experience at the ADX Florence facility in Colorado.  There were “13-inch televisions” in store; “arts and crafts” available.  (All good, except that Assange would be in housing unit H, where such items were conspicuously absent.)  Would this not, put the prosecution, reduce the risk of suicide?  Fazel’s answers proved tentative.  He noted that a “range of activities” were seemingly on offer by the US Bureau of Prisons, but he would need to see “whether they’re implemented in practice”, along with “the quality of the interventions.”  Not the sort of qualification Lewis would have wanted.

On being cross-examined by the defence, Fazel accepted that he lacked expertise on the vast, sprawling nature of the US prison system.  It followed that he had no knowledge of the pre-trial facilities at Alexandria Detention Center, where Assange will be initially held, or the consequences of applying Special Administrative Measures (SAMs).  ADX Florence, this “Alcatraz of the Rockies”, has the dubious honour of being a “clean version of hell”.  Even that wonderful assessment by a former warden has had to be revised.  The facility, according to Alan Prendergast, became a place where the mentally ill mutilated themselves, chatted to ghosts and festered in faecal-caked isolation cells.  It took a law suit to force the Bureau of Prisons to move the most disturbed prisoners out of ADX.

Fazel also accepted that lengthy prison sentences and periods of solitary confinement were conductive to a condition of hopelessness, a genuine risk factor in suicide.  Such a risk increased in instances where prospects were “bleak”.  Fewer places are bleaker than H Unit.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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