Julian Assange cannot be extradited to the United States to face charges over the release of secret military documents because of his serious mental health problems, a British judge has ruled—but the U.S. Department of Justice has vowed to appeal the dramatic decision.
Monday morning’s court hearing could have resulted in the WikiLeaks founder being sent to face the justice system in the U.S., where he’s charged with a list of 18 federal crimes including conspiring to obtain and release hundreds of thousands of pages of government documents. However, despite district judge Vanessa Baraitser finding that there were sound legal reasons for Assange’s extradition, she blocked it on health grounds.
In her ruling, Baraitser wrote that, under the “harsh conditions” of the U.S. federal prison system, she believes that Assange’s “mental health would deteriorate causing him to commit suicide.” The district judge added: “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 case against Assange stems from WikiLeaks’ release of hundreds of thousands of leaked documents revolving around the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, as well as top-secret diplomatic cables, a decade ago. He’s been held in the high-security Belmarsh prison since police officers carried him away from the Ecuadorian embassy in London in 2019, where he had holed up for seven years, and arrested him for breaching bail conditions.
A month later, the U.S. Justice Department indicted the WikiLeaks founder for revealing government secrets under the Espionage Act—the first time a publisher had been charged under the World War I-era law. Assange has always denied the charges that he plotted with U.S. defense analyst Chelsea Manning to crack an encrypted password on U.S. Department of Defense systems and has said there’s no evidence for the charge that his leaks risked the lives or safety of U.S. informants.
In a series of hearings over the past year, which were repeatedly delayed due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Assange’s lawyers argued that the Trump administration is pursuing Assange for “purely political” reasons. They argued that he would be denied a fair trial in a U.S. court because he humiliated the U.S. government with the leaks.
Assange’s lawyers also argued that Assange’s fragile mental health means that he’s at “high risk of suicide,” so his extradition could effectively amount to a death sentence. Ultimately, it was this argument alone that saved the WikiLeaks founder from extradition.
The judge found that the risk of Assange committing suicide in U.S. custody was credible, saying in court, “The overall impression is of a depressed and sometimes despairing man fearful for his future.”
Baraitser added, “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 and I order his discharge.”
Assange will return to Belmarsh and an application for his bail will be made later this week, according to BBC News.
Ahead of the ruling, Stella Moris, who has two kids with Assange, said his extradition would be an “unthinkable travesty” and undermine press freedom in Britain. “It would rewrite the rules of what it is permissible to publish here,” she wrote in the Mail on Sunday. “He risks being buried in the deepest, darkest corner of the U.S. prison system for the rest of his life. Julian embarrassed Washington and this is their revenge.”
One of the most stunning moments of the trial came when lawyers representing the U.S. accepted the claim that the WikiLeaks founder was offered a presidential pardon by a congressman on the condition that he would help cover up Russia’s involvement in hacking emails from the Democratic National Committee. Jennifer Robinson, a lawyer, told the court that she attended a meeting between Assange and then-Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher back in 2017.
Robinson said Rohrabacher claimed to be an emissary from Washington and wanted Assange to believe he was “acting on behalf of the president.” He allegedly told Assange he could help grant him a pardon in exchange for him revealing information about the source of the WikiLeaks information that proved it wasn’t Russia that hacked Democratic emails. The White House denied that President Donald Trump was aware of the plan.