UK judge refuses US extradition of WikiLeaks founder Assange

FILE - In this Monday Oct. 21, 2019 file photo a pedestrian passes street art depicting Julian Assange near Westminster Magistrates’ Court in London where Assange is expected to appear as he fights extradition to the United States on charges of conspiring to hack into a Pentagon computer, in London. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File)FILE - In this Monday Oct. 21, 2019 file photo a pedestrian passes street art depicting Julian Assange near Westminster Magistrates’ Court in London where Assange is expected to appear as he fights extradition to the United States on charges of conspiring to hack into a Pentagon computer, in London. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File)
FILE - In this Monday, Sept. 14, 2020 file photo supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange take part in a protest outside the Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey, in London. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will find out Monday Jan. 4, 2021 whether he can be extradited from the U.K. to the U.S. to face espionage charges over the publication of secret American military documents. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham, File)FILE - In this Monday, Sept. 14, 2020 file photo supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange take part in a protest outside the Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey, in London. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will find out Monday Jan. 4, 2021 whether he can be extradited from the U.K. to the U.S. to face espionage charges over the publication of secret American military documents. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham, File)
A Julian Assange supporter wears a face mask bearing his name outside the Old Bailey in London, Monday, Jan. 4, 2021. Judgement is to be made by Judge Vanessa Baraitser on Julian Assange’s his extradition hearing to the US. Assange has been charged under the US’s 1917 Espionage Act for “unlawfully obtaining and disclosing classified documents related to the national defence”.(AP Photo/Frank Augstein)A Julian Assange supporter wears a face mask bearing his name outside the Old Bailey in London, Monday, Jan. 4, 2021. Judgement is to be made by Judge Vanessa Baraitser on Julian Assange’s his extradition hearing to the US. Assange has been charged under the US’s 1917 Espionage Act for “unlawfully obtaining and disclosing classified documents related to the national defence”.(AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
FILE - In this May 19, 2017 file photo, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange greets supporters outside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he has been in self imposed exile since 2012. Judge Vanessa Baraitser has ruled that Julian Assange cannot be extradited to the US. because of concerns about his mental health, it was reported on Monday, Jan. 4, 2021. Assange had been charged under the US’s 1917 Espionage Act for “unlawfully obtaining and disclosing classified documents related to the national defence”. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein, File)FILE - In this May 19, 2017 file photo, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange greets supporters outside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he has been in self imposed exile since 2012. Judge Vanessa Baraitser has ruled that Julian Assange cannot be extradited to the US. because of concerns about his mental health, it was reported on Monday, Jan. 4, 2021. Assange had been charged under the US’s 1917 Espionage Act for “unlawfully obtaining and disclosing classified documents related to the national defence”. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein, File)

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 Assange and his supporters, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser rejected defence arguments that the 49-year-old Australian faces a politically motivated American prosecution that rides roughshod over free-speech protections. But she said 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 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 offence, fair trial and freedom of speech.”

Assange’s lawyers said they would ask for his release from a London prison where he has been held for more than a 18 months at a bail hearing on Wednesday.

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, 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 marked a dramatic moment in Assange’s 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.

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.

Moris urged Trump to pardon Assange before he leaves office this month.

“Mr. President, tear down these prison walls,” she said. “Let our little boys have their father.”

U.S. prosecutors have indicted Assange on 17 espionage charges and one charge of computer misuse over WikiLeaks’ publication of thousands of leaked military and diplomatic documents. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison.

Lawyers for 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 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 Assange’s actions, if proven, would amount to offences “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 defence also argued during a three-week hearing in the fall that 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, saying there was a “real risk” he would be sent to the Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colorado. It is the highest security prison in the U.S., also holding Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski and Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

She accepted evidence from expert witnesses that 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 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 United States 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 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.

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, 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 was a prisoner, unable to leave the tiny diplomatic space in London’s tony Knightsbridge area.

The relationship between 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.

Sweden dropped the sex crimes investigations in November 2019 because so much time had elapsed, but Assange has remained in London’s high-security Belmarsh Prison throughout his extradition hearing.

Jill Lawless, The Associated Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Wikileaks

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

(NEWS FILE PHOTO)
BUDGET 2021: City of Port Alberni looks at tax increase of 3.95 percent

City of Port Alberni held its first budget meeting of the year

Emma Nunn from Alberni Valley Rescue Squad waits at the summit of Mount Arrowsmith for the rest of the AVRS rope rescue team on Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021. (PHOTO COURTESY DAVE POULSEN, AVRS)
UPDATE: Injured hikers among three rescued in the dark from Mount Arrowsmith

‘It was a very bad, very precarious spot to be able to locate them’

The Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District and City of Port Alberni have chosen the Voyent Alert! app for emergency notifications. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)
Alberni, ACRD unveil new emergency alert system

Program is a response to criticism of botched communication after 2018 tsunami warning

Students from the junior leadership class at ADSS help homelessness and addictions advocate Mark Braunagel load backpacks and bags full of supplies into his truck on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. Students collected supplies to be handed out to some of Port Alberni’s most vulnerable people. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)
Alberni high school students fill backpacks to help city’s homeless

Junior leadership students embraced service project, said teacher Mike Roberts

(NEWS FILE PHOTO)
ACRD, City of Port Alberni receive $4 million for COVID-19

Municipalities have until end of 2021 to allocate funding

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry prepares a daily update on the coronavirus pandemic, April 21, 2020. (B.C. Government)
B.C. adjusts COVID-19 vaccine rollout for delivery slowdown

Daily cases decline over weekend, 31 more deaths

A female prisoner sent Langford police officers a thank-you card after she spent days in their custody. (Twitter/West Shore RCMP)
Woman gives Victoria-area jail 4.5-star review in handwritten card to police after arrest

‘We don’t often get thank you cards from people who stay with us, but this was sure nice to see’: RCMP

An elk got his antlers caught up in a zip line in Youbou over the weekend. (Conservation Officer Service Photo)
Elk rescued from zip line in Youbou on Vancouver Island

Officials urge people to manage items on their property that can hurt animals

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

A Trail man has a lucky tin for a keepsake after it saved him from a stabbing last week. File photo
Small tin in Kootenay man’s jacket pocket saved him from stabbing: RCMP

The man was uninjured thanks to a tin in his jacket

Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation Chantel Moore, 26, was fatally shot by a police officer during a wellness check in the early morning of June 4, 2020, in Edmundston, N.B. (Facebook)
Frustrated family denied access to B.C. Indigenous woman’s police shooting report

Independent investigation into B.C. woman’s fatal shooting in New Brunswick filed to Crown

Delta Police Constable Jason Martens and Dezi, a nine-year-old German Shepherd that recently retired after 10 years with Delta Police. (Photo submitted)
Dezi, a Delta police dog, retires on a high note after decade of service

Nine-year-old German Shepherd now fights over toys instead of chasing down bad guys

Nurses collect samples from a patient in a COVID suspect room in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at St. Paul’s hospital in downtown Vancouver, Tuesday, April 21, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)
5 British Columbians under 20 years old battled COVID-19 in ICU in recent weeks

Overall hospitalizations have fallen but young people battling the virus in hospital has increased

Canada released proposed regulations Jan. 2 for the fisheries minister to maintain Canada’s major fish stocks at sustainable levels and recover those at risk. (File photo)
New laws would cement DFO accountability to depleted fish stocks

Three B.C. salmon stocks first in line for priority attention under proposed regulations

Most Read