January 15th, 2021

UK judge refuses extradition of WikiLeaks founder Assange


By Jill Lawless, The Associated Press on January 4, 2021.

FILE - In this Monday Oct. 21, 2019 file photo a pedestrian passes street art depicting Julian Assange near Westminster Magistrates' Court in London where Assange is expected to appear as he fights extradition to the United States on charges of conspiring to hack into a Pentagon computer, in London. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File)

LONDON – A British judge has rejected the United States’ request to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to face espionage charges, saying it would be “oppressive” because of his mental health.

District Judge Vanessa Baraitser said Monday Assange was likely to commit suicide if sent to the U.S.

The U.S. government said it would appeal the decision.

U.S. prosecutors have indicted Assange on 17 espionage charges and one charge of computer misuse over WikiLeaks’ publication of leaked military and diplomatic documents a decade ago. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison.

Lawyers for the 49-year-old Australian argue 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.

The judge rejected claims by the defence that Assange was protected by free-speech guarantees, saying his “conduct, if proved, would therefore amount to offences in this jurisdiction that would not be protected by his right to freedom of speech.”

But she said Assange suffered from clinical depression that would be exacerbated by the isolation he would likely face in U.S. prison.

The judge said Assange had the “intellect and determination” to circumvent any suicide prevention measures the authorities could take.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

A British judge will decide Monday whether WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange can be extradited to the United States to face espionage charges over the site’s publication of classified American military documents a decade ago.

District Judge Vanessa Baraitser is due to give her 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.

Lawyers for the 49-year-old Australian argue 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 United States of an “extraordinary, unprecedented and politicized” prosecution that sought to “criminalize obtaining and publishing information relating to “˜national security.'”

The defence 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.

The judge’s decision will be a major moment in Assange’s decade-long legal limbo in Britain — but not the final chapter. If Baraitser approves extradition, the order must be made by British Home Secretary Priti Patel. And whichever side loses the case is likely to appeal.

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 an historic, large-scale attack on freedom of speech,” said WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson. “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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