A British judge has rejected the United States’ request to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to face espionage charges on grounds of mental health, saying the accused was a suicide risk if he was sent into custody across the Atlantic.
The US government said it would appeal District Judge Vanessa Baraitser's decision.
US prosecutors have indicted Assange on 17 espionage charges and one charge of computer misuse over WikiLeaks’ publication of leaked military and diplomatic documents a decade ago. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison.
Lawyers for the 49-year-old Australian argue that he was acting as a journalist and is entitled to First Amendment protections of freedom of speech for publishing leaked documents that exposed US military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The judge rejected claims by the defence that Assange was protected by free-speech guarantees, saying his “conduct, if proved, would therefore amount to offenses in this jurisdiction that would not be protected by his right to freedom of speech.”
But she said Assange suffered from clinical depression that would be exacerbated by the isolation he would likely face in US prison.
The judge said Assange had the “intellect and determination” to circumvent any suicide prevention measures the authorities could take.
Allegations of sexual assault
Assange’s legal troubles began in 2010, when he was arrested in London at the request of Sweden, which wanted to question him over allegations of rape and sexual assault made by two women.
In 2012, to avoid being sent to Sweden, Assange sought refuge inside the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he was beyond the reach of UK and Swedish authorities – but also effectively a prisoner, unable to leave the tiny diplomatic mission in London’s Knightsbridge area.
The relationship between Assange and his hosts eventually soured, and he was evicted from the embassy in April 2019. British police immediately arrested him for jumping bail in 2012.
Sweden dropped the sex crimes investigations in November 2019 because so much time had elapsed, but Assange remains in London’s high-security Belmarsh Prison, brought to court in a prison van throughout his extradition hearing.