A UK court has rejected the US government’s request to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to face espionage and hacking charges, which could result in a prison term of up to 175 years.
District Judge Vanessa Baraitser announced her decision to reject the US government’s demand at London’s Old Bailey court on Monday morning. The US government has already signalled that it will appeal the decision.
While Baraitser rejected almost all of the arguments made by Assange’s defence team, she made her decision based on Assange’s health, accepting that he is suffering from depression and is a suicide risk.
“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,” Baraitser said in her 132-page ruling.
Summing up her findings from the four-week trial, Baraitser sided with the prosecution on virtually every point of law, including rejecting the defence’s claim that Assange was simply acting as a journalist.
She said that the alleged offences “went beyond the mere encouragement of a journalist” and involved a conspiracy to crack secure passwords. She added that the defence’s argument that Assange should be exempt from extradition because his alleged crimes were “political” was invalid, as that protection was removed from the Extradition Act 2003, which is the applicable document in this case.
Baraitser also said she was satisfied that Assange’s prosecution was not a political decision by the Trump administration, noting that the US president has “repeatedly and publicly praised” the WikiLeaks founder.
But it was the expert testimony offered by mental health experts about Assange – who is on the Autism spectrum and suffers from Aspergers – that swayed the judge’s decision.
If Assange was extradited, he would likely be placed in “special administrative measures” in the US prison system, as he is viewed as a threat to national security. Such conditions would mean he would effectively be cut off from all contact with the outside world and other humans. This, the judge said, would see his mental health deteriorate to the point where he would become a suicide risk.
A Julian Assange supporter outside the Old Bailey on the 4th of January. Photo: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images
Assange returned to London’s high-security Belmarsh prison following the ruling but his barrister Edward Fitzgerald indicated he would make a bail application on Wednesday once he has gathered further evidence, including details about his current conditions at Belmarsh.
Assange is accused of aiding Chelsea Manning to hack sensitive computer networks, and of endangering the lives of military personnel by releasing un-redacted documents on the WikiLeaks website in 2010 and 2011. These included documents containing logs on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as other diplomatic cables.
The US Department of Justice’s case marks the first time that the act of publishing information is being charged under the Espionage Act. The case has been seen by many as a test for press freedom in Western democracies.
Assange has been in solitary confinement in Belmarsh since he was forcibly removed from the Ecuadorean embassy in the city in April 2019, seven years after he claimed asylum there.
During the four-week-long extradition hearing, Assange’s legal team said the former journalist would not be able to get a fair trial in the US, while a UN special rapporteur told the hearing he was “very worried” Assange would face torture in US prisons.
There has been growing speculation that Assange could be pardoned by US President Donald Trump in the dying days of his presidency, just as Manning was by President Barack Obama four years ago.