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British judge rejects U.S. request to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange

A British judge has rejected the United States' request to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to face espionage charges, saying he was likely to kill himself if held under harsh U.S. prison conditions.

Judge says extradition would be 'oppressive' due to Assange's mental health; U.S. says it will appeal

Assange extradition to U.S. denied over mental health concerns

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A British judge has rejected a request to extradite Julian Assange to the U.S. on espionage charges, citing fears that he would kill himself as a result of being kept in the harsh U.S. prison environment. 3:18

A British judge on Monday rejected the United States' request to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to face espionage charges, saying he was likely to kill himself if held under harsh U.S. prison conditions.

In a mixed ruling for Assange and his supporters, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser rejected defence arguments that the 49-year-old Australian faces a politically motivated American prosecution that rides roughshod over free-speech protections. But she said Assange's precarious mental health would likely deteriorate further under the conditions of "near total isolation" he would face in a U.S. prison.

"I find that the mental condition of Mr. Assange is such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the United States of America," the judge said.

Lawyers for the U.S. government said they would appeal the decision, and the U.S. Department of Justice said it would continue to seek Assange's extradition.

"While we are extremely disappointed in the court's ultimate decision, we are gratified that the United States prevailed on every point of law raised," it said in a statement. "In particular, the court rejected all of Mr. Assange's arguments regarding political motivation, political offence, fair trial and freedom of speech."

Assange's lawyers said they would ask for his release from a London prison — where he has been held for more than a year and a half — during a bail hearing on Wednesday.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange leaves Westminster Magistrates Court in London in this photo taken on Jan. 13, 2020. (Simon Dawson/Reuters)

Leaked military, diplomatic documents

Assange, who sat in the dock at London's Central Criminal Court for the ruling, wiped his brow as the decision was announced. His partner, Stella Moris, with whom he has two young sons, wept.

Outside court, Moris said the ruling was "the first step towards justice," but it was not yet time to celebrate.

"I had hoped that today would be the day that Julian would come home," she said. "Today is not that day, but that day will come soon."

The ruling marked a dramatic moment in Assange's long legal battles in Britain — though likely not its final chapter.

It's unclear whether the incoming Biden administration will pursue the prosecution, initiated under President Donald Trump.

Assange's American lawyer, Barry Pollack, said the legal team was "enormously gratified" by the British court's decision.

Stella Morris, Assange's partner, arrives with WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson, left, and WikiLeaks ambassador Joseph Farrell at the Old Bailey criminal court building in London on Monday. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

"The effort by the United States to prosecute Julian Assange and seek his extradition was ill-advised from the start," he said. "We hope that after consideration of the U.K. court's ruling, the United States will decide not to pursue the case further."

Moris urged Trump to pardon Assange before he leaves office this month.

"Mr. President, tear down these prison walls," she said. "Let our little boys have their father."

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.

Assange lawyers cite 1st Amendment

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.

Lawyers for the U.S. government deny that Assange is being prosecuted merely for publishing, 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 British judge sided with U.S. lawyers on that score, saying Assange's actions, if proven, would amount to offences "that would not be protected by his right to freedom of speech." She also said the U.S. judicial system would give him a fair trial.

The defence also argued during a three-week hearing in the fall 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.

The judge agreed that U.S. prison conditions would be oppressive, saying there was a "real risk" he would be sent to the Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colo. It is the highest-security prison in the U.S., also holding Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski and Mexican drug lord Joaquin (El Chapo) Guzman.

People celebrate after a judge ruled that Assange should not be extradited to the United States outside the courthouse on Monday. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

She accepted evidence from expert witnesses that Assange had a depressive disorder and an autism spectrum disorder.

"I accept that oppression as a bar to extradition requires a high threshold.... However, I am satisfied that, in these harsh conditions, Mr. Assange's mental health would deteriorate causing him to commit suicide with the 'single minded determination' of his autism spectrum disorder," the judge said in her ruling.

She said Assange was "a depressed and sometimes despairing man" who had the "intellect and determination" to circumvent any suicide prevention measures taken by American prison authorities.

Britain's extradition agreement with the U.S. says that extradition can be blocked if "by reason of the person's mental or physical condition, it would be unjust or oppressive to extradite him."

This is not the first time the U.K. has refused extradition to the United States on those grounds.

In 2018, a British court refused to extradite Lauri Love, a hacker accused of penetrating U.S. government networks, because of the risk he would kill himself. In 2012 then-Home Secretary Theresa May blocked the extradition of Gary McKinnon, who was accused of breaking into U.S. military and space networks, because of the risk he would end his life.

Legal troubles began in 2010

The prosecution of Assange has been condemned by journalists and human rights groups, who say it undermines free speech around the world. They welcomed the judge's decision, even though it was not made on free-speech grounds.

"This is a huge relief to anyone who cares about the rights of journalists," the Freedom of the Press Foundation tweeted.

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 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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