Julian Assange could be freed this week as judge blocks extradition to US

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Julian Assange - PA
Julian Assange – PA

Julian Assange could be a free man as early as Wednesday after a British judge ruled that he cannot be extradited to the US because there is a risk he will kill himself in prison. 

Wikileaks founder Assange is wanted by the US Government for publishing thousands of classified documents in 2010 and 2011 relating to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

But Assange’s 11 year battle against extradition finally appeared to draw to a close on Monday after District Judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled the 49-year-old should not be sent to the US by “reason of mental health”.

Despite the “strong public interest” in abiding by treaty obligations between the UK and the US, Ms Baraitser concluded that there was a “substantial” risk of suicide if Assange is handed over to the US authorities. 

In a 132 page ruling, Ms Baraitser drew on the expert evidence of five psychiatrists who diagnosed the Wikileaks founder with depression, traits of autism and suicidal thoughts. 

Supporters of Julian Assange outside the Old Bailey after the US extradition case -  JULIAN SIMMONDSSupporters of Julian Assange outside the Old Bailey after the US extradition case -  JULIAN SIMMONDS
Supporters of Julian Assange outside the Old Bailey after the US extradition case – JULIAN SIMMONDS

The judge found that, should she grant extradition, there would be a “real risk” of Assange being detained in a high-security US prison alongside the “most violent, predatory and escape-prone prisoners”. 

“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. 

“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”.

Assange wiped his brow after the decision was announced while his fiancee, Stella Moris, with whom he has two young sons, wept in court. Jubilant supporters filled the street outside the Old Bailey chanting ‘Free Assange’ following the news of his extradition win. 

The US government said it will appeal the decision. Assange has been remanded in custody ahead of a bail application on Wednesday.

Outlining the court’s decision to deny extradition, Ms Baraitser cited the 2019 suicide of convicted paedophile Jeffery Epstein in New York’s Metropolitan Correctional Center as an example of the threat to Assange’s life in the US.

The judge ruled that is it not possible “to prevent suicide where a prisoner is determined to go through with this” and “others have succeeded in recent years” in ending their lives in high security US prisons. 

Assange, who is wanted on 18 charges of espionage, would likely be incarcerated at ADX, Florence in Colorado, Ms Baraitser found, which is “the most secure prison in the federal system”. Prisoners receive a minimum of 10 hours of out-of-cell exercise per week, consume meals in their cells, and receive up to four monthly telephone calls and five visits. 

The prison experienced “two or three” suicide attempts in 2017, a report produced by the defence said.

Stella Morris, partner of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, arrives at the Old Bailey - HENRY NICHOLLS/REUTERSStella Morris, partner of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, arrives at the Old Bailey - HENRY NICHOLLS/REUTERS
Stella Morris, partner of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, arrives at the Old Bailey – HENRY NICHOLLS/REUTERS

The court heard from numerous experts, including Michael Kopelman, emeritus professor of neuropsychiatry at King’s College London, who said that Assange suffered from a recurrent depressive disorder. 

Assange reported suicidal ideas to Prof Kopelman, telling him that he had been thinking about suicide “hundreds of times a day” and had a “constant desire” to self-harm.

In May 2019, prison officers found “half of a razor blade” hidden inside a cupboard in Assange’s cell in HMP Belmarsh. 

Prof Kopelman concluded: “I am as confident as a psychiatrist ever can be that, if extradition to the United States were to become imminent, Mr. Assange will find a way of suiciding”.

In a separate report, Dr Quinton Deeley, a consultant developmental neuropsychiatrist at the National Autism Unit, described Assange as an intelligent and determined individual who “knows how to kill himself”.

Following yesterday’s landmark judgment, Assange’s partner Ms Moris called on President Donald Trump and President-Elect Joe Biden to drop the charges against him in the US. 

“Mr President, tear down these prison walls. Let our little boys have their father. Free Julian, free the press, free us all,” she told a large crowd of well-wishers outside court.

Hours after the judgment, Mexico announced it would offer political asylum to Assange. 

“Assange is a journalist and deserves a chance, I am in favor of pardoning him,” President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said. “We’ll give him protection.”

Julian Assange Timeline

2010

  • August: An arrest warrant is issued for Mr Assange for two separate allegations – one of rape and one of molestation – after he visits Sweden for a speaking trip. He is questioned by police in Stockholm and denies the allegations. 

  • November: Stockholm District Court approves a request to detain the WikiLeaks founder for questioning on suspicion of rape, sexual molestation and unlawful coercion. An international arrest warrant is issued by Swedish police through Interpol.

  • December: Mr Assange presents himself to London police and appears at an extradition hearing where he is remanded in custody. He is later granted conditional bail at the High Court in London after his supporters offer £240,000 in cash and sureties. US President Donald Trump calls for the death penalty for Mr Assange.

2011

2012

  • May: The UK Supreme Court upholds the High Court decision.

  • June 19: Mr Assange enters the Ecuadorian embassy in London, requesting political asylum. A day later, Scotland Yard confirms he will be subject to arrest for breaching his bail conditions.

2013

2014

2015

  • August 13: Swedish prosecutors drop investigations into some of the sex allegations against Mr Assange due to time restrictions. The investigation into suspected rape remains active.

  • October 12: The Metropolitan Police end their 24-hour guard outside the Ecuadorian embassy. It breaks a three-year police operation which is estimated to have cost more than £12 million.

2016

  • September 16: Sweden’s Court of Appeal rejects a bid by Mr Assange to have his sex assault warrant dropped.

  • October 2016: WikiLeaks publishes Democratic National Committee emails to the political benefit of Mr Trump, who remarks during his campaign: “I love WikiLeaks.”

  • November 14: Mr Assange is questioned for two days at the Ecuadorian embassy in the presence of Sweden’s assistant prosecutor Ingrid Isgren and police inspector Cecilia Redell.

2017

  • January 17: Barack Obama’s decision to free Ms Manning prompts speculation over Mr Assange’s position.

  • April 21: America’s attorney general Jeff Sessions says Mr Assange’s arrest is a “priority” for the US.

  • May 19: An investigation into a sex allegation against Mr Assange is dropped by Sweden’s director of public prosecutions.

  • August 15: He is allegedly offered a deal to avoid extradition in exchange for revealing the source of hacked Democratic Party emails to end speculation over Russian involvement.

  • December: Unnamed US figures who have been paying a security contractor to bug Mr Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy discuss a desperate plan to kidnap or poison him, it is claimed.

2018

  • August 9: The US Senate Committee asks to interview Mr Assange as part of its investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

  • September 27: He steps down as editor of WikiLeaks.

2019

  • January: Mr Trump claims to know nothing about WikiLeaks, only that “there is something having to do with Julian Assange”.

  • January 10: A legal defence fund is launched for Mr Assange amid fears he is under “increasingly serious threat”.

  • January 23: Lawyers for Mr Assange say they are taking action aimed at making Mr Trump’s administration reveal charges “secretly filed” against him.

  • March: Ms Manning is jailed again for refusing to give evidence to a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks.

  • April 11: Mr Assange is arrested after the Ecuadorian government withdraws his asylum, blaming his “repeated violations” of “international conventions and daily-life protocols”. He is found guilty of breaching the Bail Act and remanded in custody at Belmarsh prison.

  • May 1: Mr Assange is sentenced to 50 weeks imprisonment by Southwark Crown Court. He continues to be held on remand in Belmarsh from September after serving the custodial sentence.

  • May 19: Swedish authorities resume the investigation into the alleged rape.

  • November 19: The alleged rape investigation is discontinued.

2020

  • January 13: Mr Assange appears at Westminster Magistrates’ Court and is backed by dozens of supporters including rapper MIA.

  • February 24: He faces an extradition hearing at Woolwich Crown Court. His representatives argue he cannot legally be handed to the US for “political offences” because of a 2003 extradition treaty.

  • March 25: Mr Assange appears by video link at Westminster Magistrates’ Court, where he is refused bail amid the coronavirus crisis.

  • April 11: Stella Moris, Mr Assange’s partner, who gave birth to his two children while he was living inside the Ecuadorian embassy, issues a plea for his release amid fears for his health.

  • June 24: The US Department of Justice issues an updated 18-count indictment over Mr Assange’s alleged role in “one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States”.

  • August 25: Ms Moris visits him in Belmarsh prison for the first time in almost six months.

  • September 7: Mr Assange’s extradition hearings resume at the Old Bailey.

  • October 1: Judge Vanessa Baraitser adjourns the case.

  • November 26: Mr Moris urges Mr Trump to pardon Mr Assange before he leaves office.

2021

Reaction to Assange verdict

Supporters of Julian Assange were overjoyed at the decision not to extradite him to the United States but expressed dismay that the ruling was made on health grounds.

His mother, Christine, urged the US not to appeal against the ruling, saying her son has suffered enough.

A spokesman for the Courage Foundation, one of the groups campaigning on behalf of the WikiLeaks founder, said: “We welcome today’s decision.

“We share concerns about his health but we are concerned about many other elements of this decision.

“A clear signal has been sent that the US arms can reach everywhere.”

Fidel Narvaez, who worked at the Ecuadorean embassy for much of the time Assange lived there, said: “Be aware that freedom of expression is still under attack – if it was not for Julian’s health condition, he would be extradited.”

Assange’s mother tweeted: “UK Judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled against extraditing my son Julian to the US on medical grounds.

“US prosecutors state they will appeal.

“I implore Pres Trump & Pres elect Biden to order them to stand down.

“The decade long process was the punishment.

“He has suffered enough.”

Labour MP Richard Burgon said: “It is entirely right that Julian Assange will not be extradited to the US.

“Julian Assange would have been extradited because, as a journalist, he dared to expose US war crimes.

“Any extradition would have been an unprecedented attack on press freedom.”

Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, said: “This decision will be welcomed by all who value journalists’ ability to report on national security issues. However, whilst the outcome is the right one, Judge Vanessa Baraitser’s judgment contains much that is troubling.

“Her basis for dismissing the US’s extradition request was the suicide risk that Assange poses in a US penal system that would probably have kept him in near total isolation.

“The judge rejected the defence case that the charges against Assange related to actions identical to those undertaken daily by most investigative journalists.

“In doing so, she leaves open the door for a future US administration to confect a similar indictment against a journalist.

“Given his lengthy period of incarceration, it is surely also time to grant Assange bail so that he can join his young family.”

Nils Muiznieks, Amnesty International’s Europe director, said: “The charges against him should never have been brought in the first place.

“The charges were politically motivated and the UK Government should never have so willingly assisted the US in its unrelenting pursuit of Assange.

“The fact that the ruling is correct and saves Assange from extradition does not absolve the UK from having engaged in this politically motivated process at the behest of the USA and putting media freedom and freedom of expression on trial.”