Screen shot of Julian Assange speaking to the 2018 World Ethical Data Forum
During the extradition trial for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, James Lewis, the lead prosecutor, strongly suggested Assange reads the British Medical Journal to help him exaggerate his psychiatric symptoms. He speculated that Assange consulted his attorneys on how to effectively deceive doctors.
Lewis also repeatedly pressured a forensic psychiatrist, who took the witness stand in the Old Bailey Courthouse, to alter his diagnosis of Assange to match the prosecution’s view of Assange’s health.
Assange is accused of 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act and one count of conspiracy to commit a computer crime that, as alleged in the indictment, is written like an Espionage Act offense.
The charges criminalize the act of merely receiving classified information, as well as the publication of state secrets from the United States government. It targets common practices in newsgathering, which is why the case is widely opposed by press freedom organizations throughout the world.
Professor Michael Kopelman first met with Assange on May 30, 2019, and has visited with Assange numerous times during his detention at the Belmarsh high-security prison. He offered testimony on Assange’s clinical depression and the risk of suicide if Assange is extradited to the United States.
Kopelman told Lewis Assange reads the British Medical Journal “because he’s very preoccupied by his state of health.” He is a “little bit hypochondriacal.”
On April 12, 2019, a day after he was arrested and expelled from the Ecuador embassy in London, Assange wished to consult his legal team before seeing a psychiatrist. The prosecution cast this as something nefarious, but Kopelman said it was typical for Assange to speak with his attorneys before doing anything.
Lewis dissected Kopelman’s summaries of days in April and May 2019, when psychiatrists assessed Assange’s mental health condition. He referenced source material to argue Kopelman left out details that were not suitable to the defense. But as Kopelman noted multiple times, he did not meet with Assange in person until the end of May.
After Lewis read him one of several summaries from May 3, 2019, he stated Kopelman might change his opinion after going through each of the days. Kopelman maintained his “considered opinion” was well-founded.
Lewis quoted from the court transcript of previous days in the extradition trial, and he contended Assange’s engagement indicated he does not really suffer from moderate or severe depression, as Kopelman diagnosed.
Kopelman disagreed. “I cannot evaluate his mental and cognitive state from what’s in here,” he said, referring to transcripts. “He’s made a few comments.” He has “some long-standing semantic knowledge” and “replied appropriately.” But that does not mean his “cognitive state is normal.”
The lead prosecutor questioned the times Assange “self-reported” hallucinations. To which, Kopelman said the “nature of psychiatry is one relies on self-reporting,” and, “There is no MRI scanner that will show you a hallucination.”
“I don’t believe he’s got delusions,” Kopelman added. “He’s very worried about whether discussions are recorded.” He believes computers should be switched off. “In light of experiences in the embassy, that was rational anxiety.”
Around the one-year anniversary of Assange’s arrest, Stella Morris revealed to the press that she was Assange’s partner, and they had two children while he was living in the embassy.
The extradition trial was scheduled for May before it was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kopelman prepared two reports that included quotes from a visit with Morris, and Lewis brashly objected to the psychiatrist’s decision to withhold personal information about Morris’ relationship with Assange from the first report.
According to Kopelman, he discussed the matter with Assange’s legal team and decided they would only mention Assange had a partner but not identify the person. By the second report, it was publicly known she was his partner.
“This was not in the public domain at that point, and she was very concerned about privacy so we decided not to put it in,” Kopelman said. However, “Soon as it became in the public domain, I included it.”
Lewis scolded Kopelman, arguing he had a duty to the court that overrode not “embarrassing” Assange. It did not matter if he wanted to be sensitive to Morris’ privacy and keep it “confidential.”
In Lewis’ view, it was crucially important for Judge Vanessa Baraitser to know about Morris and his children because it could be a key “protective factor against suicide.” (Kopelman noted married people commit suicide too, and there may not be much difference at all. It’s a myth.)
Assange’s depressive state was especially severe in December 2019 and then it became moderately severe in February and March of this year, according to Kopelman. But the lockdown at Belmarsh during the pandemic led to a regression for several months.
He is apparently reluctant to “volunteer” statements to prison medical staff about his health. He drafted farewell letters to family and friends, drawn up a will, and even engaged in confession with a Catholic priest, which Kopelman documented as signs of potential suicide risk.
Assange was held in isolating confinement conditions at Belmarsh for a period, but Kopelman argued the “isolation he would experience in North America would be far worse than anything experienced in the embassy or Belmarsh.”
“If extradition became imminent,” it would be the “trigger to a suicide attempt,” Kopelman declared.
Assange was greatly concerned about Chelsea Manning, the source of documents published by WikiLeaks, which are the focus of this case. Manning was held at Alexandria Detention Center when she resisted a grand jury subpoena and attempted suicide right before she was released. This is where Assange is likely to be held in pretrial confinement.
“It just shows how awful conditions must be,” Kopelman added.
Kopelman mentioned Assange had increased symptoms of depression while in the Ecuador embassy, especially beginning in 2015. That was about three years after he was granted political asylum.
In May 2019, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer expressed “grave concerns” about the treatment of Assange by the governments of Ecuador, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States. He found their “collective persecution” amounted to “psychological torture.”
“From a strictly physical point of view, several aspects of Mr. Assange’s health condition and cognitive and sensory capacity have been, and still are, significantly impaired as a direct consequence of his long-term confinement in the Ecuadorian Embassy, without access to natural sunlight and adequate medical and dental care,” Melzer wrote.
Melzer contended, “From a psychological perspective, Mr. Assange showed all symptoms typical for prolonged and sustained exposure to severe psychological stress, anxiety and related mental and emotional suffering in an environment highly conducive to major depressive and post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD).”
“Both medical experts accompanying my visit agreed that Mr. Assange is in urgent need of treatment by a psychiatrist of his own choice and confidence, whom he does not associate with the detaining authorities, and that his current condition is likely to deteriorate dramatically, with severe and long-term psychological and social sequels,” if extradited by the U.S. government for a trial.
Lewis attacked Melzer’s work on the Assange case as “palpable nonsense” that was “neither balanced or accurate.” He pushed Kopelman to distance himself from Melzer’s conclusions, even though it was not an “important factor” in his conclusions.
Finally, it became exceptionally petty, even for the U.S. government, as Lewis asked if his depression “prevented Mr. Assange’s solicitation or leaking of material from the U.S. government.”
Lewis pressed Kopelman on whether his depression was severe enough to affect his public speaking or coordination with media outlets nearly a decade ago. His mental health did not prevent him from “doing a chat show” for Russia Today, he added.
All of the above occurred way before Kopelman diagnosed Assange’s depressive state and determined the risk of suicide he would face if extradited to the United States.