LONDON: A British judge yesterday blocked WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s extradition to the United States to face espionage charges, finding he was at serious risk of suicide. District Judge Vanessa Baraitser said the 49-year-old Australian publisher’s actions in leaking secret documents went “well beyond” that of a journalist, and he would have been “well aware” of the dangers the leak posed.
But facing the “harsh conditions” likely in the US jail system, Assange’s mental health would deteriorate, “causing him to commit suicide” with the determination of a person with autism spectrum disorder, she ruled, siding with a diagnosis by psychologists. Inside the Old Bailey court in central London, Assange wiped his forehead as the decision was announced while his fiancee Stella Moris burst into tears and was embraced by WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson.
Moris, who has two young sons with Assange, said the ruling was “a victory” but she would not celebrate until he was free and also appealed to US President Donald Trump. “End this now,” she said outside the court. “Tear down these prison walls, that our little boys have their father, for Julian, the press, for all of us.” His supporters had gathered since early morning, defying police warnings to disperse because of coronavirus restrictions. They erupted in cheers and shouted “Free Assange!”
The ruling follows more than a decade of legal controversies. Assange and his lawyers have long argued that the protracted case was politically motivated. However, the US government gave notice it will challenge the decision, and has two weeks to lodge its grounds to appeal. Assange was remanded in custody until a bail hearing tomorrow.
Any decision to block extradition should meet a high bar given Britain’s treaty obligations, Baraitser said. But she rejected US experts’ testimony that Assange would be protected from self-harm, noting that others such as disgraced US financier Jeffrey Epstein had managed to kill themselves in custody despite wardens’ supervision. “For this reason I have decided extradition would be oppressive by reason of mental harm and I order his discharge,” she said.
The US non-profit Freedom of the Press Foundation said the case against Assange was “the most dangerous threat to US press freedom in decades”. “The extradition request was not decided on press freedom grounds; rather the judge essentially ruled the US prison system was too repressive to extradite.” Fugitive US whistleblower Edward Snowden said he hoped the ruling would mark “the end” of the case against Assange.
Assange is wanted on 18 charges in the United States relating to the 2010 release by WikiLeaks of 500,000 secret files detailing aspects of military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. If convicted in the United States, he faces up to 175 years in jail. Before the ruling, both Germany and a UN rights expert expressed concern over the human rights and humanitarian problems presented by the extradition.
Assange has a history of depression and a respiratory condition that makes him more vulnerable to COVID-19, which has infected several inmates at the high-security prison where he has been held in London. He has also complained of hearing imaginary voices and music during his detention. UN special rapporteur on torture Nils Melzer has urged Trump to pardon Assange, saying he is not “an enemy of the American people”.
The prospect of a possible pardon from the outgoing US leader has gained ground following a slew of others granted to a number of Trump’s political allies. The UK hearing was told Trump had promised to pardon Assange if he testified Russia had hacked into the computer servers of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) during the 2016 election campaign. WikiLeaks later published the emails, which proved politically damaging to Trump’s Democratic rival Hillary Clinton before the vote.
Washington claims Assange helped intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning steal the 2010 documents before exposing confidential sources around the world. After Sweden first issued an arrest warrant for Assange in 2010 over allegations of sexual assault, he sought asylum in Ecuador’s embassy in London, where he remained from 2012 until 2019. In April 2019, Ecuador, by then ruled by rightwing President Lenin Moreno, revoked his citizenship. British police dragged Assange out of the embassy. – AFP