LONDON – WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange cannot be legally extradited to the US for espionage charges due to concerns about his fragile mental health and the risk of suicide, a UK court ruled Monday.
Attorneys acting on behalf of the US government have already announced that they will appeal the decision.
District Judge Vanessa Baraitser made her ruling before London’s Old Bailey Court on a case where national security violated freedom of expression. A crowd of reporters gathered outside as a small group of supporters sang “Free Julian Assange”.
“I think that Mr. Assange’s mental state is such that it would be depressing to extradite him to the United States of America,” the judge said in her decision.
If extradited, 49-year-old Assange faces a maximum of 175 years in prison if he is convicted of 17 espionage charges and one charge of computer abuse.
Assange listened in silence to the judge’s summary, wearing a blue suit and gray face mask.
Assange’s defense team argued that the US action against him was political and therefore incompatible with the US-UK extradition treaty. The judge said this was “not the basis to prevent his extradition”.
But Assange’s team argued that he could not be extradited for health reasons, and Baraitser accepted that Assange was suffering from clinical depression and had tried to control thoughts of suicide or self-harm. The judge agreed with this argument and ordered his release.
The verdict cites a psychiatrist, Dr. Michael Kopelman, who evaluated Assange.
“I am as confident as any psychiatrist can ever be that if extradition to the United States is imminent, Mr. Assange will find a route to suicide,” said Kopelman.
Assange said he worked as a journalist, but Baraitser said the WikiLeaks founder’s activities in receiving hundreds of thousands of classified files from U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning went beyond investigative journalism.
The judge rejected a number of protests by the Assange team against the extradition, including allegations that a jury in a US trial is comprised of government employees and therefore biased and that he is not afforded protection under the US Constitution.
“I have reviewed and rejected every suggestion that Mr. Assange, as a foreigner, would not get the protection of the US Constitution,” she said.
Prosecutors in the US say Assange partnered with Manning to hack into a Pentagon computer and release hundreds of thousands of classified diplomatic cables and military files.
Files released by WikiLeaks in 2010 included a video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack by American forces in Baghdad that killed a dozen people.
Assange’s supporters say the leaked documents exposed the US military’s wrongdoing.
The Australian citizen has been in a British prison since leaving the Ecuadorian embassy in London in April 2019. In 2012 he was granted asylum by Ecuador because he feared that he might be extradited to the USA. He also tried to avoid extradition to Sweden for sex on allegations that were dropped later in 2015.
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Before the judgment, Assange’s partner, Stella Moris, Who he had two children with when he lived at the embassy, told NBC News he was “an innocent man who has been in prison for nearly two years for exposing the truth about state crimes, war crimes and human rights abuses. This is one Stain on democracy. “
She urged President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden to apologize, saying it would save Assange’s life, save the life of her family and “save the first amendment as well.”
“Democracy itself is at stake in this case because it is a frontal assault on our right to hold governments accountable,” said Moris, who was on Assange’s legal team.
Agnes Callamard, director of Columbia University’s Global Freedom of Expression, an initiative committed to protecting the free flow of information, said that “Assange’s leaks and reports are protected under freedom of expression,” and that “reporting of unlawful murders internationally protected is “law.”
Moris also said she was “extremely concerned” because a Covid-19 outbreak had occurred on his wing. She added that her children spoke to Assange daily, “but they should be with their father. They should have their father’s comfort in his house. And they can’t.”
Assange has remained in jail since the US extradition negotiations began in February. They have been postponed to September because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Reuters contributed to this report.