LONDON – A British judge ruled Monday that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should not be extradited to the United States to face charges of violating the Espionage Act, because he is at extreme risk of suicide and might not be protected from harming himself in a U.S. prison.
Assange – who has been held at London’s Belmarsh prison since the Ecuadoran Embassy revoked his political asylum two years ago – is charged with 18 federal crimes, including conspiring to obtain and disclose classified diplomatic cables and sensitive military reports from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A spokesman for the Justice Department said the U.S. government will appeal the judge’s ruling. Prosecutors want Assange flown to northern Virginia to face the charges, which could lead to a life sentence in a maximum-security prison if he were convicted.
British District Judge Vanessa Baraitser did not object to the merits of the case. She rejected claims by Assange’s legal team that the U.S. government was seeking to punish the 49-year-old Australian for his political opinions and that President Donald Trump wanted his head on a pike.
The judge said she had no doubt that Assange could have a fair trial with an impartial jury in the United States, and she was not concerned that his prosecution would upend protections for journalists and publishers. She said that in encouraging hackers to join the CIA or break into government computers to give WikiLeaks material to publish, Assange had not acted as a traditional investigative journalist.
But Baraitser blocked the high-profile extradition based on testimony from psychiatrists called by the defense, who stressed that Assange was actively planning to kill himself if ordered to face trial in the United States.
She said the defense had provided compelling evidence that Assange suffers from severe depression, that he has written a will, sought absolution from a priest and that a razor blade was found hidden in his cell at Belmarsh prison in London.
“The overall impression is of a depressed and sometimes despairing man fearful for his future,” Baraitser said.
She focused on the harsh environment Assange could face if convicted. She described America’s supermax prison, the Administrative Maximum Facility or AMX, in Florence, Colo., as a facility where inmates are kept in lockdown 23 hours a day with almost no human contact.
“Faced with the conditions of near total isolation without the protective factors which limited his risk at HMP Belmarsh, I am satisfied the procedures described by the U.S. will not prevent Mr. Assange from finding a way to commit suicide and for this reason I have decided extradition would be oppressive by reason of mental harm and I order his discharge,” Baraitser said from the bench, reading from her ruling.
Assange was in the courtroom, sitting in a glass booth, wearing a dark blue suit and a green surgical mask, and he closed his eyes as he listened to the judge block his extradition. His partner and mother of their two children, Stella Moris, wept, as WikiLeaks editor in chief Kristinn Hrafnsson put his arm around her shoulders.
“I’m disappointed, certainly,” said U.S. Attorney G. Zachary Terwilliger, who brought the case against Assange. But Terwilliger said he was “pleasantly surprised” that the judge based her ruling narrowly on Assange’s mental health and not on arguments about political motivation, fair trial or freedom of speech.
“That to me is a much easier burden to get over versus if they said, no, this is entirely political. … We work through those issues all the time,” he said. “But, obviously, those will be decisions for the next administration.”
Although the Trump administration has sought to prosecute Assange, the president has praised the WikiLeaks activist for his role in releasing hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee. Assange supporters have urged Trump to issue a pardon before leaving office.
Outside the courthouse, Assange’s fiancee implored, “Mr. President, tear down these prison walls. Let our little boys have their father.”
Moris, who began a relationship with Assange while serving as his lawyer, said, “Let’s not forget the indictment in the U.S. has not been dropped. We’re extremely concerned that the U.S. government has decided to appeal this decision. It continues to want to punish Julian and make him disappear to the deepest, darkest hole of the U.S. prison system for the rest of his life.”
She added, “Journalism should never be a crime.”
U.S. prosecutors have sought to distinguish Assange and WikiLeaks from the media, arguing that no reporter would help a source try to break into encrypted files or expect legal protection if they did.
“Julian Assange is no journalist,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers said when the charges were announced. “This is made plain by the totality of his conduct as alleged in the indictment.”
The British High Court will probably agree to hear the appeal, since the extradition case has been so long and complex, said Nick Vamos, formerly head of the extradition unit at the Crown Prosecution Service and now a partner at Peters & Peters law firm in London.
But the process could take several months – perhaps even longer because of Assange’s poor health and the soaring outbreak of coronavirus in Britain, which has the capital city on near-lockdown.
Assange was returned to Belmarsh prison on Monday. He will seek release on bail, and his attorney Edward Fitzgerald said the defense will submit new evidence on Wednesday to counter a previous ruling that Assange is a flight risk.
After Monday’s ruling, the Mexican government offered Assange asylum, with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador saying at a morning news conference the WikiLeaks founder “deserves a second chance.”
A longtime standard-bearer for Mexico’s left, López Obrador said Mexico would guarantee that Assange “didn’t interfere in the political issues of any country.”
During hearings last year, Assange’s British lawyers presented witnesses to testify that their client suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, that his mental health is “fragile,” and that he is at “high risk of suicide.”
Michael Kopelman, professor of neuropsychiatry at King’s College London, told the court in September that Assange suffers from anxiety, depression and auditory hallucinations, that he has planned and imagined taking his own life, and that faced with imminent extradition, “he would indeed find a way to commit suicide.”
In her ruling, Baraitser twice referred to Jeffrey Epstein, who killed himself in a federal detention center last year while facing sex trafficking charges. His death came while he was on suicide watch after an unsuccessful attempt to take his own life.
“The suicide prevention strategy of the BOP is very good but it doesn’t always work,” a former warden of the New York facility told the British court.
Joel Sickler, a prison consultant who testified on Assange’s behalf, said he believed Epstein’s suicide was “an important factor” in the judge’s decision. “Mr. Assange likely faced the same fate if transferred here, perhaps not in pre-trial detention but most assuredly at the Super Max,” he said.
In 2017, the most recent year for which statistics from the Department of Justice are available, 33 people committed suicide while in federal custody.
This is not the first time a British court has denied a U.S. extradition request based on the same mental health grounds employed by the Assange defense.
On appeal, the British High Court in 2018 blocked the extradition of the activist Lauri Love, who was charged in 2013 with hacking into U.S. government computers to steal confidential data. Love’s lawyers presented evidence that he suffered from depression and would try to take his life if extradited. U.S. prosecutors later dropped the charges.
In addition to his alleged violations of the Espionage Act and the publishing of classified documents, U.S. prosecutors have charged Assange with conspiracy to commit “computer intrusions” by helping U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning try to hack a password.
In a superseding indictment unsealed in June, prosecutors say he also solicited hackers to break into Icelandic government computers to steal information.
Barry Pollack, one of Assange’s American attorneys, called the indictment and extradition request “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.”
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Weiner reported from Washington. The Washington Post’s Mary Beth Sheridan in Mexico City contributed to this report.