Piers Corbyn takes part in a protest as Julian Assange is taken to the Old Bailey on January 4 2021 in London, England. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/LEON NEAL
Piers Corbyn takes part in a protest as Julian Assange is taken to the Old Bailey on January 4 2021 in London, England. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/LEON NEAL

London — A UK judge on Monday blocked Julian Assange’s extradition, citing the risk of his suicide in a US jail, in a decision that gives the WikiLeaks founder a legal victory after close to a decade of imprisonment or self-imposed exile.

Judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled that his extradition to face espionage charges would be oppressive because of his mental health, saying he was “a depressed and sometimes despairing man genuinely fearful about his future”.

Assange could be released from the high-security Belmarsh prison as soon as Wednesday, when his lawyers will return to court to make what they say are the “strongest grounds to granting bail” in light of Monday’s ruling.

Baraitser spent the first part of her ruling dismissing Assange’s arguments that prosecutors faced political pressure to send him to the US and that he couldn’t receive a fair trial there. She said, however, that Assange would face “conditions of significant isolation” in US prison. She cited Jeffrey Epstein’s 2019 death as an example of when preventative measures weren’t able to protect inmates from self-harm.

“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,” Baraitser said.

Assange is accused of working with US army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to get classified documents from databases containing about 90,000 Afghanistan war-related activity reports, 400,000 Iraq war-related reports and 250,000 US state department cables.

Lawyers for the US immediately said they would appeal the decision, a process that could take years. The department of justice is “extremely disappointed” in the court’s decision, despite being “gratified that the US prevailed on every point of law raised,” it said in an e-mailed statement.

Appeal

President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team declined to comment when asked if the Democrat’s administration would keep up the pressure for Assange to be brought to the US.

“This isn’t something we’re in a position to weigh in on during the transition, but would point you to what the President-Elect has said regarding the independence of his DOJ,” Biden’s team said in an e-mailed statement.

Extradition lawyers emphasised the high bar required to overturn the decision. The ruling is “going to be difficult to appeal because it’s a factual decision on his mental health”, said Ben Keith, an extradition lawyer in London who doesn’t represent anyone in the case. He said any appeal court would be unlikely to “interfere” with the findings.

Assange wore a dark navy suit and tie in the court, with a dark grey mask covering his mouth but not his nose. Throughout the judge’s hour-long ruling, his hands were clasped on his left knee.

Baraitser’s decision will be a surprise to the Australian’s supporters, who have openly been pinning their hopes on a pardon from US President Donald Trump. Assange’s fiancée, Stella Moris, has spent the past few months making direct pleas for clemency to Trump via Twitter and appearances on Fox News.

Speaking outside London’s Old Bailey court building, Moris said she had to rewrite her speech after the ruling. She called on Assange’s supporters to “shout louder, lobby harder until he is free” and addressed Trump directly as she made a renewed plea for his pardon.

“I call on the president of the US to end this now,” she said. “Mr President, tear down these prison walls, let our little boys have their father. Free Julian.”

She spoke to a crowd of supporters who flocked outside London’s central criminal court, cheering and waving signs. While most donned face masks, there was very little social distancing despite rising Covid-19 cases in the capital.

Several British MPs also tweeted in support of the decision, including David Davis, who served as a prominent cabinet minister until 2018.

Assange initially sought refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in 2012 rather than face questioning in a Swedish sexual assault case, which was later dropped. In 2020, when he was expelled from the embassy, he faced American charges related to WikiLeaks disclosures.

Bloomberg

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