LONDON—A British judge rejected a U.S. request to extradite Julian Assange on spying charges, saying the WikiLeaks founder would be at severe risk of suicide if sent to the U.S. to await trial in a high-security prison.
The decision marks a major setback in Washington’s pursuit of Mr. Assange 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. A bail application is scheduled to be heard Wednesday.
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 result in a suicide attempt.
The judge said the harsh conditions under which he would likely be held in the U.S. prison system would exacerbate that risk. The court heard evidence from doctors who diagnosed Mr. Assange with depression and autism.
Under British extradition law, as well as European human-rights law that the U.K. is party to, a judge can block extradition on health grounds if it would result in unjust or oppressive treatment.
“I find that the mental condition of Mr. Assange is such that it would be oppressive to extradite him” to the U.S., Judge Baraitser said in a 132-page ruling. “The overall impression is of a depressed and sometimes despairing man who is genuinely fearful about his future,” she said, rejecting the U.S. extradition request.
The judge did, however, dismiss multiple other arguments against extradition, including the defense’s assertion that Mr. Assange’s prosecution was politically motivated and violated his rights to free expression.
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice said that while it was disappointed in the court’s decision, the U.S. had prevailed on every point of law raised. “We will continue to seek Mr. Assange’s extradition to the United States,” he said.
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.
His case isn’t the first occasion where a British judge has blocked extradition on the grounds that aspects of the U.S. prison system would qualify as unjust or oppressive treatment for someone who is ill. London’s High Court rejected the extradition to the U.S. of Lauri Love, an alleged computer hacker, on similar grounds in 2018.
Nick Vamos, a partner at London law firm Peters & Peters and a former head of extradition for England and Wales’s Crown Prosecution Service, said it was an argument defense teams frequently deploy when resisting extradition to the U.S.
“If you are in perfect health you are never going to win that argument. But if you have as Assange does, these underlying, serious mental-health problems, then it’s going to be a problem always with the Americans,” he said.
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.
“A tremendous amount of resources have gone into this case. There are individuals who have worked tirelessly over the years to see that this investigation moved to its completion, that charges were filed and his extradition was sought,” said Zachary Terwilliger, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, where Mr. Assange was indicted. President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team was being briefed on the case, and “there will be a lot of decisions for that group,” said Mr. Terwilliger, who is departing in coming days, as the Trump administration ends, and likely entering private practice.
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 media, 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 his 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 argued that Mr. Assange wouldn’t get a fair trial if extradited and that extradition would undermine his right to free expression.
Judge Baraitser rejected those arguments Monday, saying Mr. Assange’s alleged conduct “took him outside the role of investigative journalism.” She said there was insufficient evidence to suggest his prosecution was politically motivated, and little reason to think he wouldn’t receive a fair trial in the U.S. An American court would be able to consider whether Mr. Assange’s rights to free speech under the First Amendment were under threat, she said.
However, in her ruling, the judge said she was persuaded that Mr. Assange would likely be held in a U.S. prison under the “special administrative measures” regime often applied in national security-related cases. The court heard evidence that inmates subject to the regime are isolated from other prisoners with only limited contact with the outside world.
“All of the expert psychiatric witnesses agreed this would have a deleterious impact on Mr. Assange’s mental health,” the judge said. The court heard Mr. Assange has had suicidal thoughts while in custody in the U.K. He had made plans for his death including writing a will and sought absolution from a priest, the court heard.
An appeal, if granted, would be heard in London’s High Court probably within a few months, said Mr. Vamos. A further appeal to the U.K. Supreme Court is also possible on a point of law, meaning it might be six-to-12 months before a final decision on Mr. Assange’s fate is made.
—Sadie Gurman in Washington contributed to this article.
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