British judge rejects U.S. request to extradite Julian Assange to face espionage charges

Jan 4, 2021 | 21 comments

By Ben Quinn

Julian Assange cannot be extradited to the US to face charges of espionage and of hacking government computers, a British judge has decided.

Lawyers for U.S. authorities plan to appeal against the ruling, which was delivered at the central criminal court by the district judge, Vanessa Baraitser.

Delivering her ruling the judge said said the WikiLeaks founder was likely to be held in conditions of isolation in a so-called supermax prison in the U.S. and procedures described by U.S. authorities would not prevent him from potentially finding a way to take his own life.

“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,” she said.

Assange has been taken back to Belmarsh prison ahead of an application on Wednesday for his release on bail, which will refer to conditions at the high-security prison in south London against the backdrop of the worsening Covid-19 pandemic.

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The judge’s decision, focusing on Assange’s health, came after she knocked down one argument after another made last year by Assange’s lawyers. Sending him to the U.S. would not breach a bar on extradition for “political offenses” she said, and she had no reason to doubt that “the usual constitutional and procedural protections” would be applied to a trial he might face in the U.S.

But she accepted the evidence of prominent medical experts, including details of how Assange had suffered from depression while in prison in London. “The overall impression is of a depressed and sometimes despairing man who is genuinely depressed about his future,” said Baraitser.

The case against the 49-year-old relates to WikiLeaks’s publication of hundreds of thousands of leaked documents about the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, as well as diplomatic cables, in 2010 and 2011.

Prosecutors say Assange helped the U.S. defence analyst Chelsea Manning breach the US Espionage Act, was complicit in hacking by others and published classified information that endangered informants.

Assange denies plotting with Manning to crack an encrypted password on U.S. computers and says there is no evidence anyone’s safety was compromised. His lawyers argue the prosecution is politically motivated and that he is being pursued because WikiLeaks published U.S. government documents that revealed evidence of war crimes and human rights abuses.

At the weekend, Assange’s partner had said a decision to extradite the WikiLeaks co-founder to the US would be “politically and legally disastrous for the UK”.

Stella Moris, who has two children with Assange, said a decision to allow extradition would be an “unthinkable travesty”, adding in an article published by the Mail on Sunday that it would rewrite the rules of what it was permissible to publish in Britain.

“Overnight, it would chill free and open debate about abuses by our own government and by many foreign ones, too.”

Over the course of hearings last year, lawyers for Assange had called witnesses who told the court that WikiLeaks had played a vital role in bring revelations to light that exposed the way in which the US had conducted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Among them, the founder of the legal charity Reprieve, Clive Stafford-Smith, said “grave violations of law” such as the use of US drones for targeted strikes in Pakistan had been brought to light with the help of documents published by WikiLeaks.

Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam war, had also defended Assange, saying he had acted in the public interest, and warned he would not get a fair trial in the US.

Assange has been in custody in Britain since April 2019, when he was removed from the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he had taken refuge seven years previously to avoid extradition to Sweden over a sexual assault case that was subsequently dropped.
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Credit: CNN  

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