WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has emerged as one of the most controversial whistleblowers of recent times, hailed by supporters as a fearless campaigner for press freedom and denounced by critics as reckless, self-aggrandising and even dangerous. On Monday a British judge ruled that Assange should not be extradited to the US to face espionage charges in a trial critics have said is a test case for press freedom.
After making headlines for years for releasing secret military and government documents, 49-year-old Julian Assange was in court on Monday to hear Judge Vanessa Baraitser rule against extradition charges brought against him by the US.
The charges against Assange included 17 counts of espionage and one of computer misuse and could carry a maximum jail term of 175 years.
Baraitser rejected allegations that Assange was on trial for political reasons or that he would be denied a fair trial in the US. However, she said Assange was likely to be a suicide risk if held in “near total isolation” in a US prison.
"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 judge said.
On hearing the verdict, Assange’s fiancé Stella Morris burst into tears while Assange was seen wiping his forehead. Outside, cheers erupted as his supporters shouted “Free Assange!”
For many, Assange has come to symbolise the fight to protect freedoms at a time when trust in mainstream media and government institutions continues to plummet.
Assange biographer Andrew Fowler told FRANCE 24 that the judge’s ruling “sends a chill through journalism”.
“Essentially it showed that what journalists do for a living is seen by British courts to be a criminal act. It sends a chill through journalism. And to say it’s his mental health that stands in the way is a way of dodging the real argument and the argument is that every journalist is now on alert that anything they do... they can be picked up off the streets, charged by the US and extradited to the US on any charges the US wants to bring.”
Years of legal battle ahead
US prosecutors indicated they would launch an appeal, which could lead to years of further legal drama for Assange. Pending the appeal, Assange's lawyers will seek bail.
Assange’s legal team has accused the US of an “extraordinary, unprecedented and politicised” prosecution that constitutes “a flagrant denial of his right to freedom of expression and poses a fundamental threat to the freedom of the press throughout the world”.
His lawyer in France, Antoine Vey, has called on the international community to intervene saying the case against his client is “not at all a criminal case. It’s purely, uniquely a political one.”
Vey told FRANCE 24 before the trial that no one was permitted to see Assange in person, not even the lawyer who was preparing his case. “We just expect and hope someone raises their hand and says the US cannot prosecute someone in this circumstance and we think the international community should stand up and at least ensure he has a fair trial.”
Human rights groups and those advocating for freedom of the press have been watching the case closely.
Before the ruling, the UK National Union of Journalists had called on the British government to declare that Assange's prosecution would be “greviously damaging to media freedom”, FRANCE 24's London correspondent Bénédicte Paviot said.
The union acknowledged that Assange had “brought important information to wide attention and that he faces prosecution for actions that are commonplace for investigative journalists”, Paviot added.
Rebecca Vincent, director of international campaigns at Reporters Without Borders, also issued a statement at the beginning of the trial, criticising the charges: “This case is outrageous and clearly politically motivated. This trial intends to make an example of Assange and the future of press freedom is at stake.”
Assange first came to prominence in April 5, 2010, when the website WikiLeaks, which he founded in 2006, leaked a video showing an air strike by a US helicopter that killed civilians, including two journalists, in Baghdad.
In July, the site released 91,000 documents, mostly secret US military reports concerning the Afghanistan War.
By October 2010, WikiLeaks leaked another 400,000 classified military files about the Iraq war and followed it up in November by releasing thousands of US diplomatic cables of foreign leaders exchanging information on security.
US prosecutors have also raised links between Assange and Russia. Findings from the Robert Mueller probe into interference in the 2016 US presidential election found that Russia had hacked Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign and then WikiLeaks helped publicly distribute some of the materials.
High profile supporters
The case is a culmination of almost 10 years of legal entanglement for Assange. The Australian national first sought political asylum in Ecuador’s London embassy in 2012, after Swedish authorities tried to have him extradited over rape allegations. He has consistently denied those allegations.
Swedish prosecutors eventually dropped the rape investigation in 2019 due to insufficient evidence, but Assange was evicted from the embassy and then arrested by British police. He has been held in a London prison since April 2019.
Nils Melzer, the UN special rapporteur on torture, has condemned the conditions at London's maximum security Belmarsh Prison where Assange is being held, saying the "progressively severe suffering inflicted" on him is tantamount to torture. Melzer has urged US President Donald Trump to pardon Assange.
Assange has attracted some high-profile supporters, including dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, former US vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin and actress Pamela Anderson.
Daniel Ellsberg, the US whistleblower who had released the Pentagon Papers, also came out in support, telling the court that Assange and he had “very comparable political opinions.”
The 89-year-old, widely credited for helping to bring about an end to the Vietnam War through his leaking of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, said the American public “needed urgently to know what was being done routinely in their name, and there was no other way for them to learn it than by unauthorised disclosure.”
Reporters Without Borders has been the only NGO present in the London court during the four-week hearing. Christian Mihr, director of the group's German branch, reiterated the remarks of his UK counterpart, telling Deutsche Welle that the trial was not only “a question of freedom of the press” but also “a question of life or death for Julian Assange”.
“I've always said that this is a political process. That means there is political pressure. And that means — as sad, as tragic as that is — I won't be surprised if the court approves extradition."
Morris, Assange’s partner, has appealed to Trump via Twitter to grant him a pardon. Should that fail, Assange’s defense team will likely make a plea to US president-elect Joe Biden, who may prove more lenient.
The US has two weeks to appeal Monday's decision, with the possibility of two higher court hearings in the UK – even before a possible US presidential intervention – after which extradition proceedings could be pursued in the European Court of Human Rights.