LONDON (CN) — Citing concerns for the WikiLeaks founder’s mental health, a British judge on Monday rejected America’s request to extradite Julian Assange.
District Judge Vanessa Baraitser found there was a “high risk” that detention conditions in the United States would result in the Australian activist killing himself.
“Mr. Assange faces the bleak prospect of severely restrictive detention conditions designed to remove physical contact and reduce social interaction and contact with the outside world to a bare minimum. He faces these prospects as someone with a diagnosis of clinical depression and persistent thoughts of suicide,” Baraitser wrote in her 132-page ruling.
Outside of the courthouse — London’s Old Bailey hears major criminal cases from the British capital — Assange’s supporters gathered in spite of the cold and lockdown measures to control the spread of Covid-19.
“Whatever the official arguments are, the decision not to extradite Assange is historical for the right to information. It does not add an additional threat to investigative journalism. An extradition would have set a precedent. For those who defend him, it is a huge relief,” Secretary-General of Reporters Without Borders Christophe Deloire said on Twitter.
Assange, 49, founded Wikileaks in 2006, enabling anyone to anonymously share classified information. Amid millions of records published, the group shot to notoriety in 2012 with the release of video of a 2007 U.S. military attack in Baghdad that killed dozens, including two Reuters journalists.
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 Chelsea Manning. If convicted, he could have faced 175 years in jail.
Rebecca Vincent of Reporters Without Borders called the case against Assange “outrageous.”
“The possible implications of this case simply cannot be understated; it is the very future of journalism and press freedom that is at stake,” Vincent said in a statement.
America’s military also court-martialed Manning, an ex-U.S. Army intelligence analyst whose disclosure to WikiLeaks included the 2007 video. Manning’s refusal to testify against Assange led to a subsequent contempt-of-court jailing.
Assange’s lawyers argued that he should be protected from prosecution as a member of the media — an argument the United States contests.
“Julian Assange is no journalist,” Assistant Attorney General John Demers told reporters when a federal grand jury indicted Assange in 2019.
Judge Baraitser agreed Monday.
“In this case Mr. Assange’s alleged acts were unlawful and he does not become immune from criminal liability merely because he claims he was acting as a journalist,” she wrote.
Vincent was presented in the courtroom as the ruling was announced.
The court rejected arguments from Assange’s defense that he was being persecuted for political reasons. “There is no evidence that federal prosecutors were pressurised by the Trump administration into bringing charges. Nor is there evidence that the federal prosecutors who brought these charges have acted in bad faith,” the judge wrote.
In 2012, in an attempt to avoid extradition to Sweden to face charges of sexual assault, Assange requested asylum from Ecuador and lived in the country’s embassy in London until 2019. In a 2016 documentary, Assange called the charges a “radical feminist conspiracy.”
Following a change of government in Quito, Assange was arrested by British police at the embassy in 2019. He was sentenced to 50 weeks in jail for violating his earlier bail conditions. Citing the length of time that had passed, Sweden has since dropped the charges.
Assange returned to detention following the hearing, but his lawyers will argue for him to be freed on bail at a hearing on Wednesday morning. The United States has already indicated it will appeal.