A cross-party group of MPs who requested a video meeting with remand prisoner Julian Assange has received a dismissive response from Justice Secretary Robert Buckland QC.
Assange, the WikiLeaks co-founder who spent seven years as a fugitive in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, is being held at Belmarsh whilst the United States seeks his extradition on charges of espionage and hacking.
MP Richard Burgon wrote to Buckland on behalf of 16 MPs who wanted to meet the detainee. His letter, sent on December 16, explained that the group hoped to arrange the meeting before a court hearing on January 4.
Buckland did not reply until January 25. He opened his letter by apologising for the delay, without offering an explanation. He said he could not comment on individual prisoners, and decisions on visits had to be made by prison governors.
Buckland’s letter went on to point out that Belmarsh residents are able to use the Purple Visits system for video calls. It did not explain that this would be unsuitable for a meeting with a group of MPs, as only one household can join a Purple Visit. The letter also said that all prisoners are being given £5 a week in free telephone credit during the coronavirus pandemic. It added that prisons had been instructed to promote prisoners’ contacts with friends and family because it “helps to prevent reoffending, reduce intergenerational crime and improve the safety of the custodial environment” – none of which are likely to be relevant in Assange’s case.
After receiving the rebuff from the Secretary of State, the MPs wrote to the governor of Belmarsh making the same request – and, after three weeks, were still waiting for a reply.
Assange, 49, came to prominence in 2010 when WikiLeaks published leaked information about US military and diplomatic operations. In the same year, Assange was arrested in the UK facing extradition to Sweden on sexual assault charges, but breached bail and fled to the Ecuadorian Embassy. In 2019 Ecuador turned him out, and he was arrested and detained at Belmarsh on an extradition request from the US.
At the January 4 hearing, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser rejected the extradition request, citing concerns about Assange’s mental health and suicide risk. The US government is appealing the decision.