A British judge on Monday blocked the extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the United States to face espionage charges, finding he was at serious risk of suicide.
District Judge Vanessa Baraitser said the 49-year-old Australian publisher faced “oppressive” conditions in maximum security isolation if detained in the US. In court, Assange wiped his forehead as the decision was announced while his fiancée Stella Moris burst into tears and was embraced by WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson.
Outside the Old Bailey court in central London, his supporters who had gathered since early morning erupted in cheers and shouted “Free Assange!”
Julian Assange and his legal team have long argued that the protracted case, which has become a cause to celebrate for media freedom, was politically motivated. Assange was remanded in custody until a bail hearing on Wednesday. Any decision to block extradition should meet a high bar given Britain’s treaty obligations, Baraitser said.
But facing the “harsh conditions” likely in the US jail system, Assange’s mental health would deteriorate, “causing him to commit suicide” with the determination of a person with an autism spectrum disorder, she ruled, siding with a diagnosis by psychologists.
Baraitser rejected US experts’ testimony that Assange; would be protected from self-harm, noting that others such as disgraced US financier Jeffery Epstein; had managed to kill themselves in custody despite wardens’ supervision.
She said, “For this reason, I have decided extradition would be oppressive; by reason of mental harm and I order his discharge.”
The US non-profit Freedom of the Press Foundation; said the case against Assange was “the most dangerous threat to US press freedom in decades.”
“The extradition request was not decided on press freedom grounds, rather the judge essentially ruled the US prison system was too repressive to extradite.”
Fugitive US whistleblower Edward Snowden said he hoped Monday’s ruling would mark “the end” of the case against Assange.
Baraitser rejected claims of political motivation in the case; and said Assange’s actions went “well beyond” that a journalist; and he would have been “well aware” of the dangers the leak of documents posed.
Julian Assange is wanted to face 18 charges in the United States; relating to the 2010 release by WikiLeaks of 500,000 secret files detailing aspects of military campaigns; in Afghanistan and Iraq.
If convicted in the US Assange faces up to 175 years in jail. Before the ruling, both Germany and a UN rights expert expressed concern; over the human rights and humanitarian problems presented by the extradition.
Assange has a history of depression and a respiratory condition; that makes him more vulnerable to COVID-19 which has infected several inmates; at the high-security prison where he has been held in London.
He has also complained of hearing imaginary voices and music during his detention.
UN special rapporteur on torture Nils Melzer has urged US President Donald Trump to pardon Julian Assange, saying he is not “an enemy of the American people”.