LONDONâ€”A British judge rejected a U.S. request to extradite Julian Assange on spying charges, saying the WikiLeaks founder would be at risk of suicide if extradition was granted.
The decision marks a major setback in Washingtonâ€™s pursuit of the WikiLeaks founder for publishing secret documents relating to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. A lawyer for the U.S. government said it would appeal, setting the stage for another hearing in the coming months at the High Court in London.
Delivering her ruling Monday after months of sporadic hearings because of the coronavirus pandemic, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser said Mr. Assange has already toyed with suicide and the prospect of detention in isolation in the U.S. would likely rekindle those thoughts. She said he has the intellect and determination to get around anti-suicide protocols in U.S. jails.
â€œThe overall impression is of a depressed and sometimes despairing man who is genuinely fearful about his future,â€ she said, rejecting the U.S. extradition request.
In her ruling, Judge Baraitser rejected all of Mr. Assangeâ€™s other defenses against extradition, saying there was no reason to think he wouldnâ€™t get a fair trial and the offenses he was alleged to have committed would be prosecutable in the U.K., too.
Mr. Assange, a 49-year-old Australian, who appeared in court in person Monday is wanted in the U.S. on 18 charges of breaking espionage laws and conspiring to hack a military computer. The alleged offenses relate to the publication in 2010 and 2011 by WikiLeaks of a huge trove of classified material that painted a bleak picture of the American campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and their aftermath.
Mr. Assange has repeatedly defended his work and the wider WikiLeaks project as public-interest journalism that exposed wrongdoing by the U.S. and other governments. The high-profile case has ignited debate over the scope of press freedom in the internet age, and sparked concern that conventional media outlets and reporters could similarly be pursued for publishing government secrets.
The U.S. alleges that Mr. Assange broke the law by soliciting classified material from former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning and by helping her crack a password to obtain that material. Publication of the diplomatic cables and military logs she provided endangered the lives of U.S. intelligence sources, the U.S. government alleges.
In June, the Justice Department issued a fresh indictment that included new allegations that broadened the scope, the department said, of the conspiracy surrounding alleged computer intrusions with which Mr. Assange has been charged. He is alleged between 2007 and 2015 to have encouraged and assisted hackers affiliated with the groups Anonymous and LulzSec obtain classified information published by WikiLeaks, and to have played a role in helping Edward Snowden, a National Security Agency contractor who in 2013 leaked details of clandestine surveillance programs to the press, to evade arrest.
In hearings at a London court spread over almost a year, Mr. Assange denied that he solicited anything from Ms. Manning or helped her steal classified files. His defense argues that Mr. Assangeâ€™s prosecution is politically motivated, a potential bar to extradition under a bilateral treaty between the U.S. and U.K. that governs extradition requests. His lawyers also argue extradition to stand trial risks exposing Mr. Assange to degrading treatment in contravention of U.K. human rights law and undermines his rights to free expression.
Judge Baraitser rejected those arguments Monday. But she said evidence from multiple doctors during the hearing showed Mr. Assange suffered from conditions including autism and clinical depression. He had already made plans for his death and sought absolution from a priest, she said.
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