Accused hacker and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should not be extradited to the US to stand trial, Westminster Magistrates’ Court has ruled.
District Judge Vanessa Baraitser told Assange this morning that there was no legal obstacle to his being sent to the US, where he faces multiple criminal charges under America’s Espionage Act and Computer Fraud and Abuse Act over his WikiLeaks website.
Assange is a suicide risk and the judge decided not to order his extradition to the US, despite giving a ruling in which she demolished all of his legal team’s other arguments against extradition.
“I am satisfied that the risk that Mr Assange will commit suicide is a substantial one,” said the judge, sitting at the Old Bailey, in this morning’s ruling. Adopting the conclusions of medical expert Professor Michael Kopelman, an emeritus professor of neuropsychiatry at King’s College London, Judge Baraitser continued:
WikiLeaks published, among many other things, a quarter of a million US diplomatic cables in plain text. It has been variously alleged that these contained the unredacted names of US spies and informants in hostile countries, and that some efforts were made to warn the US prior to publication of these.
Assange, an Australian citizen, had been admitted to HM Prison Belmarsh’s medical unit in May 2019 after expressing suicidal thoughts. Half a razor blade was also found hidden in his cell, while prison medics concluded he was “finding it hard to control the thoughts of self-harm and suicide.”
Assange appeared in the dock wearing a navy blue suit and dark green facemask, according to courtroom reports.
The US government will appeal against the judgment which means the case will move to the High Court of England and Wales. Legal arguments are likely to focus on US prison conditions both pre and post-trial.
All other legal arguments against extradition rejected
Judge Baraitser heard from Assange’s lawyers during this case that he was set to be extradited because he had politically embarrassed the US, rather than committed any genuine criminal offence.
Nonetheless, US lawyers successfully argued that Assange’s actions were outside journalistic norms, with the judge approvingly quoting news articles from The Guardian and New York Times that condemned him for dumping about 250,000 stolen US diplomatic cables online in clear text.
“Free speech does not comprise a ‘trump card’ even where matters of serious public concern are disclosed,” said the judge in a passage that will be alien to American readers, whose country’s First Amendment reverses that position.
Assange obtained those diplomatic cables from former US Army intelligence operative Chelsea Manning, with the court’s judgment today recounting:
The judge also found that the one-time WikiLeaker-in-chief had directly commissioned a range of people to hack into various Western countries’ governments, banks and commercial businesses, including the Gnosis hacking crew that was active in the early 2010s.
Judge Baraitser also dismissed Assange’s legal arguments that publishing stolen US government documents on WikiLeaks was not a crime in the UK, ruling that had he been charged in the UK, he would have been guilty of offences under the Official Secrets Acts 1911-1989. Had his conduct not been a crime in the UK, that would have been a powerful blow against extradition.
Assange spent years hiding from British justice in Ecuador’s London embassy, entering in 2012 before eventually outstaying his welcome and being thrown out in 2019 – right into the hands of waiting police. He then served a year in prison for jumping bail and was remanded straight back into custody for the extradition hearing.
Legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg, tweeting from the Old Bailey, speculated that Assange would return to HMP Belmarsh today pending a formal bail application later this week. It is unlikely he will be granted bail ahead of the US appeal, not least because he is regarded as a flight risk.
Assange: court will resume shortly to discuss the issue of bail pending appeal by US. I understand that a formal application for bail will be made later this week rather than today. If that’s correct, Assange will be returning to Belmarsh today.
— Joshua Rozenberg (@JoshuaRozenberg) January 4, 2021
Summing up the thoughts of most if not all people following Assange’s case when the verdict was given, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden took to Twitter:
Holy shit https://t.co/RYXU8NtEcz
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) January 4, 2021
Having had all of his substantive legal arguments dismissed, there isn’t much for Assange and his supporters to cheer about today. It is certain that the US will throw as much legal muscle at the appeal as it possibly can. With some British prisoners successfully avoiding extradition by expressing suicidal thoughts, it is likely American prosecutors will want to set a UK precedent that overturns the suicide barrier. ®
* The so-called Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, for securely transmitting information classified up to the Secret level.