A British judge ruled Monday that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should not be extradited to the U.S. to face espionage charges over the site’s publication of classified American military documents a decade ago.
District Judge Vanessa Baraitser made the ruling at London’s Central Criminal Court, following a three-week extradition hearing in the fall. U.S. prosecutors have indicted Assange on 17 espionage charges and one charge of computer misuse. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison.
At a hearing at London's Old Bailey, Baraitser rejected nearly all his legal team's arguments but said she could not extradite him as there was a real risk he would commit suicide and ordered his discharge.
"Faced with conditions of near-total isolation ... I am satisfied that the procedures (outline by U.S. authorities) will not prevent Mr. Assange from finding a way to commit suicide," she said according to remarks carried by Reuters.
Lawyers for the 49-year-old Australian argued that he was acting as a journalist and is entitled to First Amendment protections of freedom of speech for publishing leaked documents that exposed U.S. military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan. In closing submissions, Assange’s legal team accused the U.S. of an "extraordinary, unprecedented and politicized” prosecution that sought to "criminalize obtaining and publishing information relating to ‘national security.’”
The defense argued that extradition threatens Assange’s human rights because he risks "a grossly disproportionate sentence” and detention in "draconian and inhumane conditions” that would exacerbate his severe depression and other mental health problems. Lawyers for the U.S. government deny that Assange is being prosecuted merely for publishing the leaked documents, saying the case "is in large part based upon his unlawful involvement" in the theft of the diplomatic cables and military files by U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning.
Assange’s partner, Stella Moris, who had two sons with him while he lived in the embassy, has appealed to President Donald Trump to pardon Assange before Trump leaves office on Jan. 20.
The prosecution of Assange has been condemned by journalists and human rights groups, who say it undermines free speech around the world. "The mere fact that this case has made it to court, let alone gone on this long, is a historic, large-scale attack on freedom of speech,” said WikiLeaks spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson, as The Associated Press (AP) reported. "This is a fight that affects each and every person’s right to know and is being fought collectively."
Assange’s legal troubles began in 2010 when he was arrested in London at the request of Sweden, which wanted to question him about allegations of rape and sexual assault made by two women. In 2012, to avoid being sent to Sweden, Assange sought refuge inside the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he was beyond the reach of U.K. and Swedish authorities – but also effectively a prisoner, unable to leave the tiny diplomatic mission in London’s tony Knightsbridge area. The relationship between Assange and his hosts eventually soured, and he was evicted from the embassy in April 2019.
British police immediately arrested him for jumping bail in 2012. Sweden dropped the sex crimes investigations in November 2019 because so much time had elapsed, but Assange remains in London’s high-security Belmarsh Prison, brought to court in a prison van throughout his extradition hearing.
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