(CN) – WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who’s being held in a maximum-security prison in London while fighting extradition to the United States, is in such poor physical and mental health that he could die in prison, a group of doctors is warning.
In an open letter released on Saturday, more than 60 doctors from around the world called on the British government to transfer the 48-year-old Assange to a hospital where he can get proper treatment. The doctors based their plea on reports from doctors and friends who have visited and seen Assange.
The letter also follows a Nov. 1 report by a United Nations special rapporteur on torture that said Assange’s detention was unjust and a form of torture.
The United Kingdom has been blasted by Assange’s supporters for placing him in a maximum-security prison where he is held in isolation and not allowed much exercise. He also has limited access to computers and personal documents his lawyers say he needs for his defense against extradition to the U.S., where he faces charges of conspiring with Chelsea Manning in the release of documents revealing alleged U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A hero to many free-speech advocates, the Australian-born internet activist and journalist has long been viewed as a scourge by U.S. officials. His nonprofit WikiLeaks was behind the release of millions of pages of documents related to U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, detentions at Guantánamo Bay, and Hillary Clinton’s emails. His extradition to the U.S. is a major showdown over human rights, free speech and the protection of journalism.
Assange’s health deteriorated during the seven years he spent in asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London while avoiding extradition, according to doctors. During his confinement there, doctors urged that he be allowed to obtain medical treatment at a hospital, but those requested were rejected by the U.K. government, the doctors’ letter said.
Assange was kicked out of the embassy in April and placed in Belmarsh prison by British authorities.
In their letter, the doctors said Assange needs urgent physical and mental evaluation by medical experts at a university teaching hospital.
“Were such urgent assessment and treatment not to take place, we have real concerns, on the evidence currently available, that Mr. Assange could die in prison,” the doctors said. “The medical situation is thereby urgent. There is no time to lose.”
The doctors said they have serious concerns about his fitness to stand trial in February. A magistrate judge has set an extradition hearing for Feb. 25.
On Nov. 1, Nils Melzer, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture, warned that Assange’s life was at risk.
Melzer and a medical team visited Assange in May and found that he displayed “all the symptoms typical for prolonged exposure to psychological torture.”
Melzer attacked the British government for “outright contempt for Mr. Assange’s rights and integrity.” Under the U.N.’s convention against torture, he said the U.K. must investigate whether “an act of torture” was committed against Assange.
He said the British government “flatly rejected my findings” in a “cursory response” and showed no interest to consider his concerns.
“While the U.S. Government prosecutes Mr. Assange for publishing information about serious human rights violations, including torture and murder, the officials responsible for these crimes continue to enjoy impunity,” Melzer said.
He added that “this case has never been about Mr. Assange’s guilt or innocence, but about making him pay the price for exposing serious governmental misconduct, including alleged war crimes and corruption.”
Melzer called on the U.K. to not extradite Assange and release him so he can “recover his health and rebuild his personal and professional life.”
On Monday, the U.K.’s Home Office rejected Melzer’s accusations.
“The allegations Mr. Assange was subjected to torture are unfounded and wholly false,” the Home Office said in a statement to Courthouse News. “The U.K. is committed to upholding the rule of law, and ensuring that no one is ever above it.”
The Home Office did not reply to questions about Assange’s health.
At a magistrate court hearing on Oct. 21, Assange appeared disoriented and frail, according to Craig Murray, a former British ambassador and human rights activist who is a friend of Assange.
Murray said Assange had lost more than 30 pounds, walked with a limp and appeared to be experiencing premature and “vastly accelerated aging.”
He also described Assange as showing marked mental deterioration.
“When asked to give his name and date of birth, he struggled visibly over several seconds to recall both,” Murray wrote. “It was a real struggle for him to articulate the words and focus his train of thought.”
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)