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

Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw reported an additional 456 COVID-19 cases over the past 24 hours. (photography by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Five new COVID-19 deaths in Central zone, two in Red Deer

Province reports 456 new cases of COVID-19

Businesses are getting creative to keep cash flowing. (File photo)
Central Albertan lobbying government to help those affected by CERB repayments

Catherine Hay says she received a letter in November saying she had to completely repay the benefit

Alberta has 3,651 active cases of COVID-19.  (File photo)
750 new COVID-19 cases identified in Alberta Sunday

Central zone currently has 1,182 active cases of the virus

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine deliveres to Canada are being delayed because of complications at their European distribution facility. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Delays of Pfizer vaccine delivery to impact Alberta’s vaccination plans

Alberta has administered 74,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine so far

A scene from “Canada and the Gulf War: In their own words,” a video by The Memory Project, a program of Historica Canada, is shown in this undated illustration. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Historica Canada
New video marks Canada’s contributions to first Gulf War on 30th anniversary

Veterans Affairs Canada says around 4,500 Canadian military personnel served during the war

In this March 28, 2017, file photo, a dump truck hauls coal at Contura Energy’s Eagle Butte Mine near Gillette, Wyo. Public opposition to the Alberta government’s plans to expand coal mining in the Rocky Mountains appears to be growing. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Mead Gruver, File
Alberta cancels coal leases, pauses future sales, as opposition increases

New Democrat environment critic Marlin Schmidt welcomed the suspension

File photo
Wetaskiwin Crime Reduction Unit recovers valuable stolen property

Property valued at over $50,000 recovered by Wetaskiwin Crime Reduction Unit.

In this March 28, 2017, file photo, a dump truck hauls coal at Contura Energy’s Eagle Butte Mine near Gillette, Wyo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Mead Gruver, File)
First Nations seek to intervene in court challenge of coal policy removal

Bearspaw, Ermineskin and Whitefish First Nations are among those looking to intervene

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau provides an update on the COVID-19 pandemic from Rideau Cottage in Ottawa on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau provides an update on the COVID-19 pandemic from Rideau Cottage in Ottawa on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Trudeau vows to keep up the fight to sway U.S. on merits of Keystone XL pipeline

Canada’s pitch to the Biden team has framed Keystone XL as a more environmentally friendly project than original

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
No Pfizer vaccines arriving in Canada next week; feds still expect 4M doses by end of March

More cases of U.K. variant, South African variant found in Canada

Health-care workers wait in line at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Canadians who have had COVID-19 should still get the vaccine, experts say

Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines were found to have a 95 per cent efficacy

An empty Peel and Sainte-Catherine street is shown in Montreal, Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Poll finds strong support for COVID-19 curfews despite doubts about effectiveness

The poll suggests 59 per cent remain somewhat or very afraid of contracting COVID-19

Lacombe is looking at its options for reclaiming sewage lagoons that are no longer needed. Vesta Energy Ltd. has signed a deal to use three lagoons to store water for fracking.
Map from City of Lacombe
Energy company to use former Lacombe sewage lagoons to store water for fracking

Vesta Energy Ltd. will pay Lacombe more than $100,000 a year in 20-year deal

Most Read