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UK judge blocks Julian Assange extradition

January 4, 2021

A court in London has ruled against the extradition of the WikiLeaks founder, citing mental health grounds. In the US, he faces up to 175 years, for multiple espionage charges for releasing sensitive military documents.

A court artist sketch of Julian Assange appearing in the dock. He is wearing a gray suit, red tie, white shirt and a face mask. It is covering his mouth but not his nose.
A judge ruled against Julian Assange's extradition to the US, citing mental health groundsImage: Elizabeth Cook/AP Photo/picture alliance

A UK judge on Monday refused a US request to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on espionage charges.

District Judge Vanessa Baraitser gave the decision during the morning, saying it would be "oppressive" because of his mental health.

Assange, an Australian national, was likely to commit suicide if sent to the US, Baraitser said.

Assange faces 18 charges in the US 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 US, Assange would be jailed for up to 175 years.

US prosecutors have indicated they will appeal against the ruling.

Lawyer Edward Fitzgerald said he would apply for bail for Assange on Wednesday, pending that appeal.

Australian PM Scott Morrison said if the appeal fails then Assange "would be able to return to Australia like any other Australian."

"It’s just a straightforward process of the legal system in the UK working its way through," he said in a radio interview.

What did the judge rule?

Baraitser rejected claims by the defense that Assange was protected by free-speech guarantees. His "conduct, if proved, would therefore amount to offenses in this jurisdiction that would not be protected by his right to freedom of speech," Baraitser said.

But she said Assange suffered from clinical depression that would be exacerbated by the "severely restrictive detention conditions designed to remove physical contact" in US prison.

Assange had the "intellect and determination'' to circumvent any suicide prevention measures the authorities could take, the judge said.

The Judicial Office tweeted a link to the full judgement in the Assange case.

Assange, who sat in the dock for the ruling, wiped his brow as the decision was announced. His partner Stella Moris, with whom he has two young children, wept, reported news agency AP.

Supporters of Assange celebrated outside court after the result was announced.

Julian Assange supporters celebrate
Supporters gathered outside the Old Bailey and celebrated the decisionImage: Henry Nicholls/REUTERS

What has the reaction been like?

The US Justice Department said it was "extremely disappointed" by the judge's ruling, adding: "We will continue to seek Mr. Assange's extradition to the United States."

Mexico's president, meanwhile, offered Assange political asylum. "Assange is a journalist and deserves a chance, I am in favor of pardoning him," President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador told reporters. "We'll give him protection."

Assange's lawyer, Barry Pollack, said the legal team was "enormously gratified by the UK court's decision denying extradition."

"The effort by the United States to prosecute Julian Assange and seek his extradition was ill-advised from the start," he said.

"We hope that after consideration of the UK's court's ruling, the United States will decide not to pursue the case further," Pollack added.

Former US intelligence contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden, who is living in exile in Russia, tweeted: "Let this be the end of it." 

Snowden himself is wanted in the US on espionage charges for leaking information showing that agents from the National Security Agency were collecting telephone records from millions of US citizens.

While welcoming the court's decision, Rebecca Vincent from Reporters Without Borders said:  "We disagree with the judge's assessment that this case was not politically motivated, that it is not about free speech."  

She warned that there could be "further prosecutions."

"If this happened to somebody that did not suffer from the mental health issues that Mr Assange suffers, they could easily be handed over," Vincent said.  

Who is Julian Assange?

The 49-year-old was born in 1971 in Townsville, northeastern Australia.

In 2006, he founded WikiLeaks as part of a collective. The website enabled anyone to anonymously submit leaked secret documents.

He shot to fame in early 2010 when WikiLeaks published a classified US military video showing a 2007 attack by Apache helicopters in Baghdad that killed a dozen people, including two Reuters news staff.

WikiLeaks published hundreds of thousands of secret US diplomatic cables that laid bare often critical US appraisals of world leaders, from Russian President Vladimir Putin to members of the Saudi royal family.

Assange has faced multiple controversies, including charges of sexual assault, following a visit to Sweden.

Human rights groups criticized him for going public with the Afghan war logs while not adequately protecting informants.

In a bid to avoid extradition to Sweden over sexual assault allegations, he stayed in Ecuador's embassy in London from 2012 to 2019 where he was granted asylum.

But Assange was arrested for breaching bail in 2019 after a change of government in Quito brought an end to his asylum in the mission.

Why was he up for extradition to the US?

In April 2019, a grand jury in the US state of Virginia charged Assange with one count of computer hacking. This was for allegedly assisting former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in accessing classified documents that exposed the US military activities in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In May 2019, the WikiLeaks founder was indicted under the US Espionage Act on 17 counts for soliciting, gathering and publishing US military and diplomatic documents in 2010, all provided by Manning.

The US Justice Department on June 11, 2020, formally asked Britain to extradite Assange to the US to face a total of 18 charges.

How is Assange's mental health?

Years in confinement in both the Ecuadorian embassy and in HMP Belmarsh, a prison in southeast London, have taken a toll on Assange's mental and physical health, according to his lawyers, doctors and UN experts.

Nils Melzer, the UN special rapporteur on torture, who visited Assange in May 2019 in prison, told DW: "He wasn't in good health. I took two specialized doctors with me, people who had worked with torture victims for 30 years, a psychiatrist and a forensic expert."

"Both of them came independently to the conclusion that Assange showed all the signs typical for victims of psychological torture: intense anxiety, chronic stress syndromes that had already deteriorated his cognitive capacity and neurological functions, and that was already measurable at that time," added Melzer.

Assange has a history of depression. He has also complained of hearing imaginary voices and music during his detention.

What is the UN's view on treatment of Assange?

UN's Melzer said that Assange would face conditions that would "amount to torture" if extradited to the US.

Melzer noted that "modern forms of torture," like the ones that Assange apparently faced, are different from physical abuse of earlier times.

"It is very much a cumulative process of destabilizing people through isolation and humiliation," he told DW on Monday. "It's also judicial harassment, which I mean by these judicial proceedings that are not based on law, but they're being conducted for political purposes where procedural rights are systematically being violated."

In this way, "the person is being destabilized systematically," Melzer added.

"We've seen that in many countries in the world, many regimes that try to use torture, methods that don't leave physical traces. And in the end, it breaks a person."

What are the press freedom concerns?

Many have criticized the US extradition bid as an attempt to criminalize investigative journalism.

Reporters Without Border (RSF) are relieved that Assange would apparently not be extradited, but remain "deeply disappointed" by the judge's reasoning, said RSF's Director of International Campaigns for Reporters Rebecca Vincent.

The judge "rejected key aspects of the defense… such as the fact that this case is politically motivated and that it centers on journalism," Vincent told DW.

Assange verdict: Rebecca Vincent (Reporters Without Borders) speaks to DW

Vincent also said the US government "systematically failed to prove" that anyone has been physically harmed by the WikiLeaks publications.

"And I'm sorry, in 10 years and with the vast resources of the US government has put into pursuing Mr. Assange, had there been any credible evidence of any of this harm, they would have submitted it to the court for scrutiny," she said.

The chairman of the German Federation of Journalists (DJV), Frank Überall, called the verdict an important success "for all journalists who work with explosive material that powerful people have no interest in publishing." 

Christian Mihr, director of the German branch of Reporters Without Borders, attended many days of the court proceedings in London.He told DW he believed that British authorities had "attempted to systematically shut out international observers."

The process was "political," Mihr added.

kmm/rt (AFP, dpa, Reuters, AP)