A British judge has rejected the United States’ request to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to face espionage charges, saying he was likely to kill himself if held under harsh US prison conditions.
In a mixed ruling for Assange and his supporters, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser rejected defence arguments the 49-year-old Australian faces a politically-motivated prosecution that rides roughshod over free-speech protections.
But she said Assange’s precarious mental health would likely deteriorate further under the conditions of “near total isolation” he would face in a US prison.
“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,” the judge said.
Lawyers for the US government said they would appeal the decision and the US Department of Justice said it would continue to seek Assange’s extradition.
“While we are extremely disappointed in the court’s ultimate decision, we are gratified that the United States prevailed on every point of law raised,” it said in a statement.
“In particular, the court rejected all of Mr Assange’s arguments regarding political motivation, political offence, fair trial and freedom of speech.”
Assange’s lawyers said they would ask for his release from a London prison where he has been held for more than 18 months at a bail hearing on Wednesday.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australia was providing Assange with consular assistance. Morrison also said Assange would be free to return to Australia if he wins his court case.
Assange, who sat quietly in the dock at London’s Central Criminal Court for the ruling, wiped his brow as Monday’s decision was announced.
His partner Stella Moris, with whom he has two young sons, wept.
Outside court, Moris said the ruling was “the first step towards justice” but it was not yet time to celebrate.
“I had hoped that today would be the day Julian would come home,” she said.
“Today is not that day but that day will come soon.”
The ruling marked a dramatic moment in Assange’s long legal battles in Britain – though likely not its final chapter.
It’s unclear whether the incoming Biden administration will pursue the prosecution, initiated under President Donald Trump.
Assange’s American lawyer, Barry Pollack, said the legal team was “enormously gratified” by the British court’s decision.
“We hope that after consideration of the UK court’s ruling, the United States will decide not to pursue the case further,” he said.
Moris urged Trump to pardon Assange before leaving office this month.
“Mr President, tear down these prison walls,” she said. “Let our little boys have their father.”
The US has indicted Assange on 17 espionage charges and one of computer misuse over publication of thousands of leaked military and diplomatic documents.
The charges carry a maximum sentence of 175 years’ prison.
Lawyers for Assange argue he was acting as a journalist and is entitled to First Amendment protections for publishing documents exposing US military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan.
US lawyers argue the case “is in large part based upon his unlawful involvement” in the theft of the diplomatic cables and military files by US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning.
The British judge sided with them, saying Assange’s actions, if proven, would amount to offences “that would not be protected by his right to freedom of speech”.
The judge however agreed US prison conditions would be oppressive, saying there was a “real risk” he would be sent to the Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colorado which also holds Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski and Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
She said Assange was “a depressed and sometimes despairing man” who had the “intellect and determination” to circumvent any suicide prevention measures taken by American prison authorities.