Julian Assange is on the autistic spectrum and has a history of depression that would put him at risk of suicide if he is extradited to a US prison, psychiatrists tell the court
Published: 23 Sep 2020 18:52
Julian Assange has been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, severe depression and other mental health conditions which put him at risk of suicide, the court heard during his extradition hearing.
Assange is at high risk of suicide if he is extradited to the US, medical experts said during the hearing at the Old Bailey.
Assange’s mental health and risk of suicide is one of the major factors that will determine whether the WikiLeaks founder can be extradited to the US.
In two precedent-setting cases, the UK refused the extradition of Gary McKinnon in 2012 and Lauri Love in 2018 to face hacking charges in the US on the grounds that they had Asperger syndrome and depression – conditions that would put them at risk of suicide.
Over the past two days, medical experts told judges at the Old Bailey that Assange had depression and autism, and hence would be at high risk of suicide if the court ordered his extradition to a US prison.
Assange has been indicted on 17 charges under the US Espionage Act and one charge under the US Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, after receiving hundreds of thousands of leaked government documents from former US soldier Chelsea Manning.
The WikiLeaks founder faces further allegations that he conspired with computer hackers to encourage them to obtain secret US government documents.
Giving evidence on Wednesday, Quinton Deeley an NHS consultant psychiatrist, said he had diagnosed Assange with Asperger syndrome.
Deeley diagnosed the condition after observing Assange complete a two-hour test in January 2020 and six hours of phone interviews with Assange in July 2020.
He said that Assange was an intelligent person, with a capacity for analytic thought and understanding systems, but had difficulty understanding other people.
“With deliberation, he can bring himself to understand what other people are thinking and feeling, but in his day-to-day experience he is oblivious,” he told the court.
The psychiatrist told the court that Assange’s Asperger syndrome meant he ruminated on matters obsessively, and combined with his history of depression, he would be at high risk of suicide if he faced extradition to a US prison.
“It is an outcome he fears, an outcome he dreads. He has consistently said that he would find it an unbearable ordeal,” said Deeley.
“The reality of the situation is that people who are determined to kill themselves will kill themselves,” he told the court.
James Lewis QC for the prosecution asked Deeley if he was aware that Assange was the host of a TV show in 2012, and engaged in “conversational interchange” at the Frontline Club for journalists in 2010.
When a video of Assange speaking at the Frontline Club was played in court, Deeley said Assange had presented an “impressive monologue” on a subject he is expert in, but that he found spontaneous interaction more difficult.
Assange had shown indications of autism as a child, said Deeley, including a preference for solitary play, and as a teenager developed friendships with a small number of “geeky” people who shared his interest in computing.
The psychiatrist interviewed a friend of Assange’s from Australia, who told him that Assange frequently behaved unusually. It was normal for him to go into cafes and move the chairs around, to go behind the bar to change the music to something he liked or to take a picture off the wall to look at it.
He could not handle small-talk, talk about football or the weather. He would talk over people, interrupt them and cut people off – not because he was arrogant but because he had a thought and he wanted to express it.
Deeley said there appeared to be a history of autistic spectrum disorder in Assange’s family. His mother identified herself as “on the spectrum” and his grandmother isolated herself in her room learning Latin.
Michael Kopelman, head of neuropsychiatry at King’s College London, said Assange had autism, bouts of depression and has had auditory hallucinations.
“As far as a psychiatrist can say, the risk of suicide should extradition happen is very high,” Kopelman told the court.
Giving evidence on Tuesday 22 September, Kopelman said Assange had drawn up a will and confessed to a Catholic priest, who gave him absolution.
The court heard that Assange had been found in possession of a large number of paracetamol and had been charged with possessing a razor blade in his cell at Belmarsh prison in south-east London.
On another occasion, Assange said he had had a “near death experience”.
Possibility of malingering?
Lewis pressed Kopelman on whether he had experience of spotting prisoners who were malingering or exaggerating their symptoms.
Kopelman said: “I am very well aware, as someone who has done a lot of cases, of the possibility of malingering, and I was aware of that in this case.”
The prosecution lawyer asked Kopelman why he had failed to mention in his report that Assange read the British Medical Journal. He also said Kopelman had not included in his medical report items recorded in Assange’s notes, including examples where Assange appeared relaxed and had denied self-harm.
Kopelman said he was trying to write a summary for the court, and that his report was more comprehensive than that of other medical experts in the case. “I have included things he says that are positive about his mental health and things that are negative. I have not included everything,” he said.
The case continues.
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