Assange Faces Time in ‘Britain’s Guantanamo’ After Years in Embassy

(Bloomberg) -- Without consistent internet access, medical attention or the ability to go outside, Julian Assange complained that his almost seven-year stay in the Ecuadorian embassy in London was uncomfortable. The WikiLeaks founder’s living conditions may now be a lot worse.

After a London court processed Assange, he headed to Belmarsh Prison, according to his friend Vaughan Smith, who was one of the last people to visit the Australian in his room at the embassy before his arrest Thursday.

Once referred to as Britain’s Guantanamo Bay, Belmarsh, in southeast London, has held high-profile inmates such as Abu Qatada, once described by a Spanish judge as al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden’s right-hand man in Europe, and four men who attempted a suicide attack on London’s public-transport system. The location may be an indication of the British authorities’ strict approach to the 47-year-old’s detention while he fights extradition to the U.S. over disclosure of government secrets.

Belmarsh does have a range of inmates, from low-risk offenders to a unit that holds some of the highest-risk prisoners in the country, according to an inspectors’ report last year. The jail also has a small number of prisoners who require specific management arrangements because of their public profiles.

The surroundings won’t be entirely foreign to Assange. He was in another London facility, Wandsworth Prison, for nine days in 2010 related to an extradition request from Sweden. When Assange was released on bail, his lawyer at the time called the conditions "Dickensian" and vowed that his client would never return. Assange himself considered that sojourn an opportunity to think.

“During my time in a Victorian prison, I had time to reflect on the conditions of those people around the world also in solitary confinement in conditions that are more difficult than those faced by me,” Assange said at the time.

One small prison benefit for Assange could be long overdue health-care treatment.

He’s been unable to receive treatment for the past seven years, his attorney, Jen Robinson, told reporters outside a London court Thursday. While many prisoners at Belmarsh say it’s difficult to see a doctor or a nurse, these services are available at the facility.

A spokesman for Assange confirmed that he’s in Belmarsh. Robinson and another of his lawyers, Ben Cooper, didn’t return emails seeking comment. Spokesmen for the justice ministry and prosecutors declined to comment.

Assange, who had grown out his white hair and beard, was bundled from the embassy in London’s upscale Knightsbridge neighborhood Thursday morning by British police.

His living conditions in the Ecuadorian office were basic. He was confined to a room with a bed and a table, a donated treadmill, and no natural light, according to media reports.

After being cooped up in the embassy, he won’t get much opportunity to stretch out in Belmarsh, a prison opened in 1991 and situated south of the Thames about 5 miles east of Greenwich.

Time away from the cell is limited. Almost half of prisoners said they usually spend less than two hours out of their cells in a typical week, according to the inspector’s report.

If Assange is kept in the high-security unit, things may be tougher. The inspector’s report described the conditions as “extremely claustrophobic,” and access to the gym and library is more restricted.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.