There is no doubt that the story of Julian Assange and his decade-long struggle with the law has been keeping governments, the media and the public at large wondering what will come next – and his latest ruling against extradition to the United States is no different. On Monday, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser blocked the US justice department’s request for Mr. Assange extradition on espionage and hacking charges on the grounds he would be likely to commit suicide under the harsh American prison conditions. While the result seemed to bring joy to Mr. Assange and his supporters, the reasoning behind it puts journalists all around the world at risk.
The founder of Wikileaks made international headlines in 2010 and 2011, after publishing a classified US military video showing an Apache helicopter shooting 18 civilians in Baghdad in 2007, including two Reuters war correspondents. Wikileaks then released over 250,000 military cables and classified documents on the handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that saw former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning jailed. US prosecutors have indicted Assange on 17 espionage charges and one charge of “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion,” which could imprison him for 175 years.
Assange’s claims he was acting as a journalist have been dismissed by the British judge, who explicitly concluded that the defendant should answer the allegations brought against him, outlining the British extradition law requires to consider his health. She said: “Faced with the conditions of near total isolation without the protective factors which limited his risk at HMP Belmarsh, I am satisfied the procedures described by the US will not prevent Mr. Assange from finding a way to commit suicide and for this reason I have decided extradition would be oppressive by reason of mental harm and I order his discharge.”
The US authorities have 14 days to appeal this decision and it appears they will do so, which could take the case to London’s High Court and ultimately the UK’s Supreme Court. While the US justice department expressed disappointment in the judgement, they said they are satisfied all their legal arguments had prevailed. “While we are extremely disappointed in the court’s decision, we are gratified that the United States prevailed on every point raised.” This caused a series of reactions from politicians and organizations around the world.
- Amnesty International criticised the UK for “having engaged in this politically-motivated process at the behest of the USA and putting media freedom and freedom of expression on trial”
- UK Conservative MP David Davis tweeted: “Good news Julian Assange’s extradition has been blocked. Extradition treaties should not be used for political prosecutions”
- Former UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said it is “good news” although “alarming that the judge has accepted US government arguments threatening freedom of speech and freedom to publish”
- Michelle Stanistreet, head of the NUJ described the outcome as “the right one” but the assessment as “much that is troubling”
- John Pilger, journalist and documentary maker tweeted: “Julian Assange has been discharged by the judge at the Old Bailey on grounds he was too great a suicide risk if extradited to the US. This is wonderful! It’s a face-saving cover for the British to justify their disgraceful political trial of #Assange on America’s behalf”
Others took the issue further and offered Assange political asylum. Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said: “Assange is a journalist and deserves a chance. We’ll give him protection.” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said: “Assuming that all turns out, he’s like any other Australian, he’d be free to return home if he wished and he’s going through those processes.”
Assange’s legal problems started in 2010, when he was arrested in London at the request of Sweden on two counts of rape and molestation allegations, which were later dropped. In 2012, while facing extradition to Sweden Mr. Assange jumped bail and sought refuge inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London where he lived for almost seven years. When his asylum was revoked by Ecuador in May 2019 he was jailed to 50 weeks for breaching his bail conditions and remained in Belmarsh Prison ever since. Two days after ruling against his extradition to the US, district judge Vanessa Baraitser refused his bail application.