A British judge ruled Monday that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should not be extradited to the United States on espionage charges because he is a suicide risk, in a move that touches on press freedoms and the international reach of the U.S. justice system.
The ruling ostensibly brings to an end a legal saga that has dragged on for almost a decade and has been full of controversies that pitted Washington against rights campaigners who say the government is trying to redefine what journalists can publish.
Assange was indicted in 2019 by the Department of Justice on 18 counts, alleging 17 forms of espionage and one instance of computer misuse crimes connected to WikiLeaks’ dissemination of secret U.S. military documents provided to him by ex-U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. Assange denied the charges and claimed the documents exposed war crimes and abuses by the U.S. military in Iraq.
Judge Vanessa Baraitser told London’s Old Bailey Court that a request by the Department of Justice to have the Australian national, 49, sent to Washington to face the U.S. charges was denied because she couldn’t be certain he wouldn’t find a way to kill himself while in U.S. detention.
The ruling does not establish whether Assange is guilty of wrongdoing.
U.S. prosecutors said they will appeal the ruling.
Britain’s home secretary has the final say over extraditions, meaning the case is likely to still drag on for some time.
Assange faced 175 years in prison if convicted in a U.S. court.
Assange and his lawyers have long maintained his innocence on the grounds that he simply did what any other journalists would do: publish information in the public interest. Assange’s legal team argued the charges were politically motivated, his mental health is at risk and conditions in U.S. prisons breach Britain’s human rights laws.
The verdict was delayed several times because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Department of Justice argued, in its indictments and as part of the extradition case in Britain, that Assange should not be considered a journalist because he did not write or edit any of the material WikiLeaks published. U.S. authorities also claimed he stole, or convinced Manning to steal, the secret documents.
The First Amendment, as it applies to the press, restrains the government from jailing, fining or imposing liability for what the press publishes.
It does not shield journalists from criminal liability.
Assange describes himself as a political refugee.
He was charged under the 1917 Espionage Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
“If you are able to prosecute someone who has a strong case to be called a publisher, then who’s next?” John Kiriakou, a former CIA analyst, previously told USA TODAY.
Kiriakou blew the whistle on a U.S. government-sanctioned torture program in 2007 that was approved by President George W. Bush because of the feared threats posed by the al-Qaeda terrorist organization. He served jail time after pleading guilty to leaking the name of an officer involved in waterboarding.
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Since May last year Assange has been locked up at London’s Belmarsh Prison, a facility that houses some of Britain’s most dangerous lawbreakers.
Assange is there because he was found guilty of skipping bail in 2012. At the time, he fled to Ecuador’s diplomatic compound in London rather than turn himself in to British authorities for possible extradition to Sweden. Investigators in the Scandinavian country had wanted to question him over sexual assault allegations connected to two women.
Assange hid from British police in Ecuador’s poky red-brick embassy building for seven years, just yards from the famous luxury Harrods department store, because he feared Sweden would, in turn, send him to the U.S. as part of an extradition request.
The Swedish case has since been dropped.
His extradition case in Britain began after Assange left Ecuador’s embassy and was arrested by police. Bail was denied because he was deemed a flight risk.
“The mere fact that this case has made it to court let alone gone on this long is an historic, large-scale attack on freedom of speech. The U.S. government should listen to the groundswell of support coming from the main stream media editorials, NGOs around the world such as Amnesty and Reporters Without Borders and the United Nations who are all calling for these charges to be dropped,” said Kristinn Hrafnsson, Wikileaks’ editor-in-chief, ahead of the verdict.
“This is a fight that affects each and every person’s right to know and is being fought collectively.”