Assange to remain in UK as US extradition request denied
A British judge rejected a request by the United States to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in order to face espionage charges, citing concerns that Mr. Assange’s mental health could deteriorate should he be returned.
Supporters of Julian Assange celebrate in London after a British judge ruled that he cannot be extradited to the U.S., Jan. 4, 2021. Mr. Assange faces espionage charges over WikiLeaks’ publication of leaked military and diplomatic documents a decade ago.
January 4, 2021
By Jill Lawless
A British judge on Monday rejected the United States’ request to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to face espionage charges over the publication of secret U.S. documents a decade ago, saying he was likely to kill himself if held under harsh U.S. prison conditions.
In a mixed ruling for Mr. Assange and his supporters, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser rejected defense arguments that the Australian faces a politically motivated American prosecution that rides roughshod over free-speech protections. But she said Mr. Assange’s precarious mental health would likely deteriorate further under the conditions of “near total isolation” he would face in a U.S. prison.
“I find that the mental condition of Mr. Assange is such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the United States of America,” the judge said.
Lawyers for the U.S. government said they would appeal the decision, and the U.S. Department of Justice said it would continue to seek Mr. Assange’s extradition.
“While we are extremely disappointed in the court’s ultimate decision, we are gratified that the United States prevailed on every point of law raised,” it said in a statement. “In particular, the court rejected all of Mr. Assange’s arguments regarding political motivation, political offense, fair trial, and freedom of speech.”
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Mr. Assange’s lawyers said they would ask for his release from a London prison where he has been held for more than 18 months at a bail hearing on Wednesday.
Mr. Assange, who sat quietly in the dock at London’s Central Criminal Court for the ruling, wiped his brow as the decision was announced. His partner Stella Moris, with whom he has two young sons, wept.
Outside court, Ms. Moris said the ruling was “the first step towards justice,” but it was not yet time to celebrate.
“I had hoped that today would be the day that Julian would come home,” she said. “Today is not that day, but that day will come soon.”
The ruling marks a dramatic moment in Mr. Assange’s years-long legal battles in Britain – though likely not its final chapter.
It’s unclear whether the incoming Biden administration will pursue the prosecution, initiated under President Donald Trump.
Mr. Assange’s American lawyer, Barry Pollack, said the legal team was “enormously gratified” by the British court’s decision.
“We hope that after consideration of the U.K. court’s ruling, the United States will decide not to pursue the case further,” he said.
Ms. Moris urged Mr. Trump to pardon Mr. Assange before he leaves office later this month.
“Mr. President, tear down these prison walls,” she said. “Let our little boys have their father.”
U.S. prosecutors have indicted Mr. Assange on 17 espionage charges and one charge of computer misuse over WikiLeaks’ publication of leaked military and diplomatic documents a decade ago. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison.
Lawyers for Mr. Assange argue that he was acting as a journalist and is entitled to First Amendment protections of freedom of speech for publishing documents that exposed U.S. military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lawyers for the U.S. government denied that Mr. Assange was being prosecuted merely for publishing, saying the case “is in large part based upon his unlawful involvement” in the theft of the diplomatic cables and military files by U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning.
The British judge sided with U.S. lawyers on that score, saying Mr. Assange’s actions, if proven, would “amount to offenses in this jurisdiction that would not be protected by his right to freedom of speech.” She also said the U.S. judicial system would give him a fair trial.
The defense also argued during a three-week hearing in the fall that Mr. Assange risked “a grossly disproportionate sentence” and detention in “draconian and inhumane conditions” if he was sent to the United States.
The judge agreed that U.S. prison conditions would be oppressive. She accepted evidence from expert witnesses that Mr. Assange had a depressive disorder and an autism spectrum disorder.
“I am satisfied that, in these harsh conditions, Mr. Assange’s mental health would deteriorate, causing him to commit suicide with the single-minded determination of his autism spectrum disorder,” the judge said.
She said Mr. Assange was “a depressed and sometimes despairing man” who had the “intellect and determination” to circumvent any suicide prevention measures taken by American prison authorities.
Britain’s extradition agreement with the U.S. says that extradition can be blocked if “by reason of the person’s mental or physical condition, it would be unjust or oppressive to extradite him.”
This is not the first time the U.K. has refused extradition to the U.S. on those grounds.
In 2018, a British court refused to extradite Lauri Love, a hacker accused of penetrating U.S. government networks, because of the risk he would kill himself. In 2012 then-Home Secretary Theresa May blocked the extradition of Gary McKinnon, who was accused of breaking into U.S. military and space networks, because of the risk he would end his life.
The prosecution of Mr. Assange has been condemned by journalists and human rights groups, who say it undermines free speech and imperils journalists. They welcomed the judge’s decision, even though it was not made on free-speech grounds.
“This is a huge relief to anyone who cares about the rights of journalists,” The Freedom of the Press Foundation tweeted.
Mr. Assange’s legal troubles began in 2010, when he was arrested in London at the request of Sweden, which wanted to question him about allegations of rape and sexual assault made by two women. In 2012, Mr. Assange jumped bail and sought refuge inside the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he was beyond the reach of U.K. and Swedish authorities – but also effectively a prisoner, unable to leave the tiny diplomatic mission in London’s Knightsbridge area.
The relationship between Mr. Assange and his hosts eventually soured, and he was evicted from the embassy in April 2019. British police immediately arrested him for breaching bail in 2012.
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Sweden dropped the sex crimes investigations in November 2019 because so much time had elapsed, but Mr. Assange has remained in London’s high-security Belmarsh Prison throughout his extradition hearing.
This story was reported by The Associated Press.