ROME – On Palm Sunday, Julian Assange, the Australian founder of WikiLeaks who made headlines in 2010 for publishing thousands of confidential US diplomatic documents, received a personal letter from Pope Francis.
In a March 28 tweet, Assange’s partner Stella Moris said that “after a hard night, Julian woke up this morning to a kind, personal message from Pope Francis @pontifex delivered to his cell door by the prison priest.”
“Our family wishes to express our gratitude to the many Catholics and other Christians campaigning for his freedom,” Moris said.
The contents of the letter were not disclosed; however, it has been rumored for years that Assange is suffering from psychological trauma related to prolonged stress and anxiety over his ordeal.
After a hard night, Julian woke up this morning to a kind, personal message from Pope Francis @pontifex delivered to his cell door by the prison priest.
— Stella Moris #DropTheCharges (@StellaMoris1) March 28, 2021
Assange founded WikiLeaks, an international NGO that publishes news leaks and classified information from anonymous sources, in 2006.
He came to international attention in 2010, when he published more than 250,000 confidential U.S. documents leaked to him by U.S. Army Intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. The documents dealt with U.S. military activities in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other things.
Shortly after the publication of those documents, Sweden issued an international arrest warrant for Assange on charges of sexual assault, which Assange claimed were fabricated as a pretext for extraditing him to the United States for his role in publishing the documents.
After losing his battle against extradition to Sweden, Assange breached bail and in June 2012 took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. He was granted asylum by Ecuador on grounds of political persecution, with the assumption that should he be extradited to Sweden, he would eventually be extradited to the United States.
In 2019 Swedish authorities dropped their investigation into Assange, but in April of that year Ecuador withdrew his asylum over a series of disputes with Ecuadorian authorities, and UK police were invited into the embassy, and Assange was arrested.
He was found guilty of violating the Bail Act and sentenced to 50 weeks in prison. Since then, he has been detained at the HM Prison Belmarsh, a men’s prison in southeast London.
Shortly after this ruling, the U.S. government unsealed and indictment against Assange related to the 2010 leaks, and in May 2019 was charged by the U.S. with violating the Espionage Act of 1917 – a move met with widespread criticism in the media on grounds that the charge violated the US Constitution’s First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of the press.
On Jan. 4, UK District Judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled against the United States’ request to extradite Assange, insisting that doing so would be damaging to his mental health. Assange was denied bail two days later. Meanwhile, the U.S. has launched an appeal to Baraitser’s ruling.
According to an examination of Assange conducted by United Nations special rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Nils Melzer in 2019, Assange demonstrated symptoms of psychological torture, chronic anxiety, extreme stress, and intense psychological trauma.
While the contents of the letter are unknown, Pope Francis’s letter to Assange is not the first time he has written to a high-profile prisoner.
Pope Francis has penned personal notes to other high-profile prisoners, including a May 2019 letter to former Brazilian president Lula da Silva, who in 2017 was charged with corruption and money laundering and sentenced to nine years in prison.
After an unsuccessful appeal, da Silva was arrested in April 2018 and spent 580 days in jail before Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court ruled in November 2019 that incarcerations with pending appeals were unlawful, resulting in da Silva’s release.
Earlier this month, charges against da Silva were dropped on a technicality stating that the court that convicted him did not have proper jurisdiction over his case.
After his release from prison, da Silva thanked Pope Francis for his 2019 letter, which according to da Silva touched on the need to see politics as a form of charity and offered encouragement in the face of “difficult trials” he had endured, including the deaths of his wife, his brother, and his seven-year-old grandson.
Throughout his papacy, Pope Francis has shown support to inmates, visiting prisons during his international trips, and has often urged international leaders to consider granting clemency when possible.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen