A British judge ruled Monday that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should not be extradited to the U.S. on espionage charges because he is a suicide risk, in a move that touches on press freedoms and the international reach of the U.S. justice system.
The ruling ostensibly brings to an end a legal saga that has dragged on for almost a decade and has been full of controversies that pitted Washington against rights campaigners who say the U.S. government tried to redefine what journalists can publish.
U.S. prosecutors said they would appeal the ruling.
Assange was indicted in 2019 by the Department of Justice on 18 counts, alleging 17 forms of espionage and one instance of computer misuse crimes connected to WikiLeaks’ dissemination of secret U.S. military documents provided to him by ex-U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. Assange denied the charges and claimed the documents exposed war crimes and abuses by the U.S. military in Iraq.
Judge Vanessa Baraitser told London’s Old Bailey Court that a request by the Department of Justice to have the Australian national, 49, sent to Washington to face the U.S. charges was denied because she couldn’t be certain he wouldn’t find a way to kill himself while in a U.S. detention facility either before or after any court case.
In her ruling, Baraitser outlined examples of Assange’s poor mental health and history of self harm and suicidal thoughts. “The overall impression is of a depressed and sometimes despairing man fearful for his future,” she said, adding that Assange’s high level of intelligence meant he would likely eventually succeed in taking his own life.
“Faced with the conditions of near total isolation without the protective factors which limited his risk at HMP Belmarsh, I am satisfied the procedures described by the U.S. will not prevent Mr. Assange from finding a way to commit suicide and for this reason I have decided extradition would be oppressive by reason of mental harm,” she said.
The ruling does not establish whether Assange is guilty of wrongdoing and U.S. prosecutors said they will appeal the judgement.
However, Britain’s home secretary has the final say over extraditions, meaning the case will probably still drag on for some time.
Assange had faced 175 years in prison if convicted in a U.S. court.
Assange and his lawyers have long maintained his innocence on the grounds that he simply did what any other journalists would do: publish information in the public interest. Assange’s legal team argued the charges were politically motivated, his mental and physical health was at risk and conditions in U.S. prisons breach Britain’s human rights laws.
The verdict was delayed several times because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Department of Justice argued, in its indictments and as part of the extradition case in Britain, that Assange should not be considered a journalist because he did not write or edit any of the material WikiLeaks published. U.S. authorities also claimed he stole, or convinced Manning to steal, the secret documents.
Baraitser largely agreed with U.S. prosecutors on these points, saying that his alleged actions to encourage Manning and others to steal U.S. military documents “went beyond mere” journalism and should not be protected by free speech rules.
The First Amendment, as it applies to the press, restrains the government from jailing, fining or imposing liability for what the press publishes.
It does not shield journalists from criminal liability.
Assange describes himself as a political refugee.
He was charged in the U.S. under the 1917 Espionage Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
“If you are able to prosecute someone who has a strong case to be called a publisher, then who’s next?” John Kiriakou, a former CIA analyst, previously told USA TODAY.
Kiriakou blew the whistle on a U.S. government-sanctioned torture program in 2007 that was approved by President George W. Bush because of the feared threats posed by the al-Qaeda terrorist organization. He served jail time after pleading guilty to leaking the name of an officer involved in waterboarding.
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Since May last year Assange has been locked up at London’s Belmarsh Prison, a facility that houses some of Britain’s most dangerous lawbreakers.
It was not immediately clear if he will be granted bail while U.S. prosecutors lodge their appeal. And if Assange is eventually released he may not be able to leave Britain without facing arrest if the U.S. issues an international arrest warrant.
Assange is in Belmarsh Prison because he was found guilty of skipping bail in 2012. At the time, he fled to Ecuador’s diplomatic compound in London rather than turn himself in to British authorities for possible extradition to Sweden. Investigators in the Scandinavian country had wanted to question him over sexual assault allegations connected to two women.
Assange hid from British police in Ecuador’s poky red-brick embassy building for seven years, just yards from the famous luxury Harrods department store, because he feared Sweden would, in turn, send him to the U.S. as part of an extradition request.
The Swedish case has since been dropped.
His extradition case in Britain began after Assange left Ecuador’s embassy and was arrested by police. Bail was denied because he was deemed a flight risk.
“The mere fact that this case has made it to court let alone gone on this long is an historic, large-scale attack on freedom of speech. The U.S. government should listen to the groundswell of support coming from the main stream media editorials, NGOs around the world such as Amnesty and Reporters Without Borders and the United Nations who are all calling for these charges to be dropped,” said Kristinn Hrafnsson, Wikileaks’ editor-in-chief, ahead of the verdict.
“This is a fight that affects each and every person’s right to know and is being fought collectively.”
Anas Mustapha, a spokesperson for CAGE, a U.K.-based organization that highlights what it describes as “repressive state policies,” said that it welcomed the blocking of Assange’s extradition, but was disappointed he was “spared only on account of his suicide risk” and said the “ruling makes it clear” that “dissent and truth-telling” are being criminalized.
Assange appeared in court Monday in a face mask. As the verdict was read he closed his eyes and nervously twiddled his thumbs. Also in the court was his fiancee, Stella Morris, and their two young sons. Morris wept as Baraitser read out highlights from her ruling.