LONDON -- A British judge on Monday rejected the United States’ request to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to face espionage charges over the publication of secret U.S. documents a decade ago, saying he was likely to kill himself if held under harsh U.S. prison conditions.
In a mixed ruling for Assange and his supporters, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser rejected defense arguments that the 49-year-old Australian faces a politically motivated American prosecution that rides roughshod over free-speech protections. But she said Assange's precarious mental health would likely deteriorate further under the conditions of “near total isolation” he would face in a U.S. 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.
Lawyers for the U.S. government said they would appeal the decision, and the U.S. Department of Justice said it would continue to seek Assange’s extradition.
“While we are extremely disappointed in the court’s ultimate decision, we are gratified that the United States prevailed on every point of law raised," it said in a statement. "In particular, the court rejected all of Mr. Assange’s arguments regarding political motivation, political offense, fair trial and freedom of speech.”
Assange’s lawyers said they would ask for his release from a London prison where he has been held for more than 18 months at a bail hearing on Wednesday.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australia was providing Assange with consular assistance. Morrison also said Assange would be free to return to Australia if he wins his court case.
“Assuming if that all that turns out, then he’s like any other Australian. He’d be free to return home if he wished,” Morrison told Melbourne Radio 3AW.
Australia’s Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance, the journalists’ union of which Assange is a member, has called on the Australian government to expedite Assange’s safe passage to Australia.
Andrew Wilkie and George Christensen, co-chairs of the Bring Julian Assange Home Parliamentary Group, which comprises more than 20 Australian lawmakers, called on the Australian government to ensure Assange would not be extradited if he returned to his home country.
Assange, who sat quietly in the dock at London's Central Criminal Court for the ruling, wiped his brow as the decision was announced. His partner Stella Moris, with whom he has two young sons, wept.
Outside court, Moris said the ruling was “the first step towards justice,” but it was not yet time to celebrate.
“I had hoped that today would be the day that Julian would come home," she said. “Today is not that day, but that day will come soon.”
The ruling marked a dramatic moment in Assange’s long legal battles in Britain — though likely not its final chapter.
It’s unclear whether the incoming Biden administration will pursue the prosecution, initiated under President Donald Trump.
Assange's American lawyer, Barry Pollack, said the legal team was “enormously gratified" by the British court's decision.
“We hope that after consideration of the U.K. court’s ruling, the United States will decide not to pursue the case further," he said.
Moris urged Trump to pardon Assange before he leaves office this month.
“Mr. President, tear down these prison walls,” she said. “Let our little boys have their father.”
U.S. prosecutors have indicted Assange on 17 espionage charges and one charge of computer misuse over WikiLeaks’ publication of thousands of leaked military and diplomatic documents. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison.
Lawyers for Assange argue that he was acting as a journalist and is entitled to First Amendment protections of freedom of speech for publishing documents that exposed U.S. military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lawyers for the U.S. government denied that Assange was being prosecuted merely for publishing, saying the case “is in large part based upon his unlawful involvement” in the theft of the diplomatic cables and military files by U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning.
The British judge sided with U.S. lawyers on that score, saying Assange's actions, if proven, would amount to offenses "that would not be protected by his right to freedom of speech.” She also said the U.S. judicial system would give him a fair trial.
The defense also argued during a three-week hearing in the fall that Assange risked “a grossly disproportionate sentence” and detention in “draconian and inhumane conditions” if he was sent to the United States.
The judge agreed that U.S. prison conditions would be oppressive, saying there was a “real risk” he would be sent to the Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colorado. It is the highest security prison in the U.S., also holding Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski and Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
She accepted evidence from expert witnesses that Assange had a depressive disorder and an autism spectrum disorder.
“I am satisfied that, in these harsh conditions, Mr. Assange’s mental health would deteriorate, causing him to commit suicide with the single minded determination of his autism spectrum disorder," the judge said.
She said Assange was “a depressed and sometimes despairing man” who had the “intellect and determination” to circumvent any suicide prevention measures taken by American prison authorities.
Britain’s extradition agreement with the U.S. says that extradition can be blocked if “by reason of the person’s mental or physical condition, it would be unjust or oppressive to extradite him.”
This is not the first time the U.K. has refused extradition to the United States on those grounds.
In 2018, a British court refused to extradite Lauri Love, a hacker accused of penetrating U.S. government networks, because of the risk he would kill himself. In 2012 then-Home Secretary Theresa May blocked the extradition of Gary McKinnon, who was accused of breaking into U.S. military and space networks, because of the risk he would end his life.
The prosecution of Assange has been condemned by journalists and human rights groups, who say it undermines free speech and imperils journalists. They welcomed the judge's decision, even though it was not made on free-speech grounds.
"This is a huge relief to anyone who cares about the rights of journalists," The Freedom of the Press Foundation tweeted.
Assange’s legal troubles began in 2010, when he was arrested in London at the request of Sweden, which wanted to question him about allegations of rape and sexual assault made by two women. In 2012, Assange jumped bail and sought refuge inside the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he was beyond the reach of U.K. and Swedish authorities — but also effectively was a prisoner, unable to leave the tiny diplomatic space in London’s tony 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 breaching bail in 2012.
Sweden dropped the sex crimes investigations in November 2019 because so much time had elapsed, but Assange has remained in London’s high-security Belmarsh Prison throughout his extradition hearing.
Associated Press reporter Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, contributed to this report.