Julian Assange avoids extradition to the US, but only on health grounds

WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange, 49, will not be extradited to the US to face charges of espionage after British judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled in his favour.

Judge Baraitser rejected arguments that Mr Assange would not get a fair trial in the US and accepted US authorities’ assertation that his alleged activities fell outside the realm of journalism. Nonetheless, she blocked extradition on the basis that procedures in prisons there would not stop him from taking his own life. “The overall impression is of a depressed and sometimes despairing man, who is genuinely fearful about his future,” Judge Baraitser said regarding evidence by medical experts. “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 case against Mr Assange relates to hundreds of thousands of leaked documents about the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and the release of diplomatic cables in 2010 and 2011.

Prosecutors also allege that Mr Assange was also complicity in hacking by others and the publication of classified information which endangered informants in the case of US defence analyst Chelsea Manning, who he helped breach the US Espionage Act. Mr Assange denies plotting with Manning to crack the encrypted password on US computers and his lawyers argue that a politically motivated case is being made against Mr Assange to prevent him from revealing evidence of war crimes and human rights abuses.

US authorities are appealing against the ruling at the Old Bailey, and Mr Assange will appear at Westminster Magistrates court in west London on Wednesday for a new bail application.

Mr Assange’s legal team are expected to refer to conditions at Belmarsh high-security prison in south London at a time of pandemic in their application however would be surprised if bail is granted as Mr Assange is considered a flight risk.

Stela Moris, Mr Assagne’s partner, said the ruling was “the first step towards justice” but said it was not yet time to celebrate.

Mr Assange’s supporters were elated with the decision to not extradite Mr Assange but were dismayed that it was solely based on health grounds.

Nick Vamos, a partner at Peters & Peters Solicitors and a former head of extradition at the Crown Prosecution Service, told the Guardian that the ruling largely applied principles which thwarted a US attempt to secure the extradition of British student Lauri Love, accused of breaking into US government websites. He said it was not unprecedented and “journalists will take no comfort from this ruling because it provides absolutely no defence of his activities.”

Mr Assange has been in custody since April 2019 following his removal from the Ecuadorian embassy where he had taken refuge seven years to avoid extradition to Sweden over a sexual assault case which has been subsequently dropped.

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