'Our ratbag' Julian Assange suffers from psychological torture, say two Australian MPs
London: Two Australian MPs say a visit to the jail cell of Julian Assange confirms their fears that the "ratbag" Wikileaks founder has suffered from psychological torture, amid claims that new evidence in the extradition saga could force the Morrison government to intervene.
Government backbencher George Christensen and independent MP Andrew Wilkie spent more than 1.5 hours conducting a "welfare check" on the 48-year-old Australian citizen in London's Belmarsh Prison on Tuesday afternoon and said they were shocked by his mental health.
"I don't want to talk too pejoratively about the state that we saw him in but it was the kind of state that you'd expect from a man who's been absolutely and utterly isolated and who just does not know what is going on," Christensen said. "It was clear to us that his mental state isn't good."
Christensen, one of the Morrison government's most conservative members, described Assange as "disorientated", "dehumanised" and "depersonalised" and urged British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to step in to prevent a hearing next week that could pave the way for the Wikileaks figure to be sent to the United States to face serious charges.
Both MPs said they had no cause to disagree with an assessment by the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, that Assange had been the victim of psychological torture. The UK has defended its handling of the case and the conditions of his imprisonment.
The WikiLeaks founder has been in Belmarsh Prison since April 2019 trying to avoid extradition to the US to face 17 espionage charges and one computer hacking charge. The first stage of the extradition hearing begins on Monday.
Wilkie and Christensen agreed public opinion of Assange was mixed but stressed there was a fundamental problem with a British court being allowed to determine whether an Australian citizen should be extradited to America.
"I walk out of Belmarsh in absolutely no doubt that he has become a political prisoner in this country and that the US is determined to extradite him to get even," Wilkie said.
"There was no espionage. There was no hacking. It was just a person doing the right thing and publishing important information in the public interest and frankly it is an international scandal that he is locked up in there in those conditions as a political prisoner."
Assange is no longer subject to strict solitary detention but told the Australian MPs he was still confined to his cell for 20 hours a day.
Wikileads editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson said inmates had petitioned the prison governor to release Assange from isolation.
"There is more humanity, actually, among hardened criminals in Belmarsh Prison than you will find outside," Hrafnsson said.
In a new development, Christensen told reporters following the prison visit and an earlier briefing with Assange's legal team that new evidence to support the case for Assange would be revealed in court and could force Australia to get more involved.
"I think there is more the Australian government can do, and I think when we hear some of the stuff that's going to come to light next week, there's more that will be done," the Queensland-based Liberal National Party MP said.
"There's information that I now know, that will be known next week, that will probably make people sit up straight and worry about this a hell of a lot.
"I think that now is a time that the government that I'm part of needs to be standing up and saying to both the UK and the US: 'enough is enough, leave our bloke alone and let him come home'."
Lawyers for Assange fear the Morrison government will hand the Wikileaks founder over to the United States should he win the extradition battle in Britain and then be deported to Australia.
Barrister Jennifer Robinson said multiple scenarios could unfold following next week's crunch extradition hearing at a courthouse near the prison. These include Assange being extradited to the US and facing trial, Assange winning his case but being forced to stay in London during an appeal, and Assange winning his case and being deported to Australia only to then be extradited to the US.
Each option could extend the legal tussle over his future by many years, she warned.
"He is at risk if he travels and is at risk even if he returns home to Australia, which underlines the importance of the United States withdrawing this request," she said. "Stopping this in its tracks in the United States is the best possible option."
Christensen said he would lobby the government to change its extradition laws with the US in a way that would raise the bar for Assange's possible extradition.
"I'm a big fan of the Trump administration, a big fan of Donald Trump, a big fan of BoJo [Boris Johnson," Christensen said.
"But I will tell you what I'm a bigger fan of: free speech and a free press. These are the fundamentals of a democracy and they are values that, as a conservative, I want to uphold and they are clearly under attack when it comes to the Julian Assange case.
"There's a lot of Australians on the left and the right who think Julian Assange is a ratbag. But you know what? He's our ratbag, so he should be brought home."
Christensen dodged questions by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age about how his advocacy for a free press squared with his blocking numerous Freedom of Information requests by journalists about a federal police probe into his frequent travels to the Philippines over a four-year period.
He earlier this year repaid more than $2000 for using taxpayers' money on domestic travel to link up with his personal overseas trips.
Both MPs travelled to Britain at their own expense.
Bevan Shields is the Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.