Julian Assange
Julian AssangeREUTERS

Concluding that there is a real risk that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will commit suicide if he is extradited to the United States, a British judge ruled on Monday that he will not be sent abroad to face charges.

“We are extremely disappointed” with this ruling and “will continue to seek Mr. Assange’s extradition,” was the response of the U.S. Justice Department in a statement that alleged that the U.S. had won the case on all its legal points, including those related to freedom of speech and political motivation. The U.S. administration continues to insist that Assange’s activities place lives in danger.

The White House has yet to issue its own response. In the past, President Trump has made statements indicating support of Assange, once saying, “I love WikiLeaks” after it released hacked emails prior to the 2016 presidential election which embarrassed his then-opponent, Hillary Clinton. However, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called the organization “a non-state hostile intelligence service,” and Assange is still wanted for 18 offenses related to the release of huge quantities of confidential U.S. military records and diplomatic cables. If convicted, he could face a sentence of up to 175 years.

WikiLeaks first gained prominence in 2010, when it published a U.S. military video that portrayed an attack in Baghdad in which twelve people, including two journalists with Reuters, were killed. Assange fled to the Ecuadorean embassy to seek asylum shortly afterward, where he remained for the next seven years. After a regime change in Ecuador, he was ejected from the embassy and jailed in the UK for breaching bail conditions. It was then that the United States formally asked the British government to extradite him.

In her summing-up, Justice Vanessa Baraitser rejected the arguments of the defense that Assange was being pursued for political reasons, and denied that his freedom of speech was being attacked. Furthermore, she did not accept that Assange was not assured of a fair trial if extradited. Instead, she focused on the likelihood that if imprisoned in the U.S., Assange would likely be sent to a maximum-security facility (SAM) and that “if he is subjected to the extreme conditions of SAMs, Mr. Assange’s mental health will deteriorate to the point where he will commit suicide … [due to the] severely restrictive detention conditions designed to remove physical contact.”

In May of 2019, the UN special rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, visited Assange in prison in the UK, along with two medical experts on the effects of torture on prisoners. “Both of them came independently to the conclusion that Assange showed all the signs typical for victims of psychological torture,” Melzer stated afterward, citing, “intense anxiety, chronic stress syndromes that had already deteriorated his cognitive capacity and neurological functions.”

Judge Baraitser appeared to accept this appraisal as accurate, noting in her ruling that “the overall impression is of a depressed and sometimes despairing man who is genuinely fearful about his future. I find that Mr. Assange’s risk of committing suicide, if an extradition order were to be made, to be substantial.”

Supporters of the 49-year-old Assange celebrated outside court after the result was announced, as did his tearful partner, mother to his two children.

The chairman of the German Federation of Journalists (DJV), Frank Überall, called the verdict an important success “for all journalists who work with explosive material that powerful people have no interest in publishing.”

And from Russia, where he is living in exile, former US intelligence contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden tweeted: “Let this be the end of it.”

Snowden himself is wanted in the U.S. on espionage charges for leaking information revealing that agents from the National Security Agency were collecting telephone records from millions of US citizens without their knowledge or consent.

While welcoming the court’s decision, Rebecca Vincent of Reporters Without Borders stated: “We disagree with the judge's assessment that this case was not politically motivated, that it is not about free speech.” She added that the United States government has “systematically failed to prove” that anyone has suffered physical harm due to WikiLeaks’ activities. “I’m sorry – in ten years and with the vast resources of the U.S. government … had there been any credible evidence of this harm, they would have submitted it to the court for scrutiny,” she said.

Assange’s lawyers will be seeking bail for their client. Responding to the court’s ruling, Australian PM Scott Morrison said if the appeal likely to be lodged by the United States government fails then Assange “would be able to return to Australia like any other Australian.”