(CN) — The United States sought to get a British high court on Wednesday to reconsider a lower court judge's decision to block the extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on espionage charges due to his poor mental state.
In January, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser found there was a “high risk” that detention conditions in the U.S. would result in Assange killing himself.
Since that ruling, the U.S. has provided assurances that Assange, if convicted, would not be placed in isolation in the only federal so-called supermax prison, the ADX Florence facility in Colorado. The U.S. has also promised Assange will get the clinical and psychological treatment he needs and that he will eventually be eligible to apply for a prisoner transfer to his native Australia.
James Lewis, a lawyer with Britain's Crown Prosecution Service and acting on behalf of the U.S., argued before Britain's High Court of Justice that Baraitser's finding was deeply flawed and relied far too heavily on the medical opinions of a single defense expert, Dr. Michael Kopelman, an emeritus professor of neuropsychiatry at Kings College in London.
“It is simply not sufficient to say I prefer the evidence of one expert over another without giving cogent and detailed reasons why,” Lewis told the court.
Lewis cast doubt on Kopelman's assessment that Assange suffers from severe depression and suicidal thoughts. He alleged Assange has had reason to overstate his poor mental health to avoid extradition.
“Mr. Assange had every reason to exaggerate his symptoms,” he said.
He said arguing that a person might commit suicide in an American prison turns into a “trump card” to avoid extradition.
“That then becomes a trump card that cannot be dealt with by the requesting state,” he said.
In light of the assurances given by the U.S., Lewis said the U.K. has no reason to fear Assange will not be afforded proper treatment. He added that the U.S. has consistently upheld assurances it's provided in past extradition cases and that no person extradited from the U.K. to the U.S. has ever ended up committing suicide.
“The United States and the United Kingdom have a long history of cooperation on law enforcement issues including extradition,” Lewis said. “There is no factual basis for believing that it would not abide by the assurances made in this case.”
Assange's lawyers contend that despite the assurances, Assange is at risk of ending up in a high-security prison with little contact with the outside world. The defense will get a chance to present its case on Thursday.
Supporters of the WikiLeaks founder held a rally outside the London court and Assange's partner Stella Moris – with whom he has two children – demanded his release from Belmarsh prison in London.
“I'm very concerned for Julian's health," Moris told reporters. “He is very thin. And I hope that the courts will end this nightmare.”
Assange followed the proceedings from a video link from Belmarsh, where he has been detained since he was removed by police from the Ecuador embassy in 2019. He spent seven years at the embassy while he fought extradition to the U.S., where he faces charges of conspiring with Chelsea Manning in the release of documents revealing alleged U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A hero to many free-speech advocates, the Australian-born internet activist and journalist has long been viewed as a scourge by U.S. officials. His nonprofit WikiLeaks was behind the release of millions of pages of documents related to U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, detentions at Guantánamo Bay and Hillary Clinton’s emails. His extradition to the U.S. is a major showdown over human rights, free speech and the protection of journalism.
The U.S. has charged Assange with 18 counts of soliciting, gathering and publishing classified documents as well as computer hacking related to the release of hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables and military reports by Manning. If convicted, he could face 175 years in jail.
Two senior judges at the High Court – Lord Chief Justice Burnett of Maldon and Lord Justice Holroyde – are presiding over the hearings. They will rule at a later date.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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