A British judge ruled on Monday that WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange should not be extradited to the United States to face charges of breaking a spying law and conspiring to hack government computers.
At a hearing at London’s Old Bailey, Judge Vanessa 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.
U.S. prosecutors have indicated they will appeal against the ruling, his lawyer said.
Lawyer Edward Fitzgerald said he would apply for bail for Assange on Wednesday, pending that appeal.
U.S. authorities accuse Australian-born Assange, 49, of 18 counts relating to Wikileaks’ release of vast troves of confidential U.S. military records and diplomatic cables which they said had put lives in danger.
If extradited and then found guilty of espionage, Assange could go to prison for 30 to 40 years, his lawyers say, though prosecutors say he would face no more than 63 months in jail.
Following rejection of the extradition request, the case could go the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court, further delaying the final outcome.
U.S. prosecutors and Western security officials see Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, as a reckless and dangerous enemy of the state whose actions put at risk the lives of agents whose names were in the material.
Supporters regard him as an anti-establishment hero who has been victimised because he exposed U.S. wrongdoing in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and say his prosecution is an assault on journalism and free speech.
Assange’s legal team said in its closing written submission to Judge Vanessa Baraitser that the prosecution had been politically motivated “during a unique period of U.S. history under the (U.S. President Donald) Trump administration.”
The legal team representing the United States has challenged that assertion, saying U.S. federal prosecutors are forbidden to consider political opinion in making their decisions.
WikiLeaks published a U.S. military video in 2010 showing a 2007 attack by Apache helicopters in Baghdad that killed a dozen people, including two Reuters news staff. It then released thousands of secret classified files and diplomatic cables.
The legal saga began soon afterwards when Sweden sought Assange’s extradition from Britain over allegations of sex crimes. When he lost that case in 2012, he fled to the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he spent seven years, during which he fathered two children.
When he was finally dragged out in April 2019, he was jailed for breaching British bail conditions although the Swedish case against him had been dropped. Last June, the U.S. Justice Department formally asked Britain to extradite him.
Assange’s legal team say the charges are politically motivated, his mental health is at risk, conditions in U.S. prisons breach Britain’s human rights laws, and he and his lawyers were spied on while he was in the Ecuadorean embassy.
The U.S. legal team has said many of Assange’s defence arguments are issues that should be addressed in a trial and have no bearing on extradition.
There is also a possibility that Joe Biden might reverse the decision to prosecute Assange after Biden succeeds Trump as president later this month.