On Monday, a British judge rejected the US government’s extradition request of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
The US now has two weeks to appeal the decision, which they are expected to do. Assange’s legal team is preparing to present a bail application on Wednesday in hopes of freeing Assange from London’s Belmarsh Prison, where he has been held since April 2019.
Magistrate Vanessa Baraitser cited Assange’s mental health and the high risk of suicide if he ends up in a US supermax prison as the reason for her decision.
“I find that Assange’s risk of committing suicide if an extradition order were to be made, to be substantial,” Baraitser said in her ruling at London’s Old Bailey Court.
While she ultimately denied extradition, Baraitser sided with the US prosecution team in her ruling and said the US would be justified to put Assange on trial for espionage.
For exposing US war crimes using standard journalistic practices, Assange faces up to 175 years in prison under the US charges against him. The US Justice Department indicted the WikiLeaks founder on 17 counts of espionage and one count of conspiracy to commit a computer crime.
The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), an Australian trade union Assange is a member as a journalist, released a statement outlining the grave implications Baraitser’s ruling has for freedom of the press.
MEAA President Marcus Strom said Baraitser “showed no concern for press freedom in any of her comments today, and effectively accepted the US arguments that journalists can be prosecuted for exposing war crimes and other government secrets, and for protecting their sources.”
A spokesman for the US Justice Department released a statement on the ruling that makes it clear Baraitser fed into Washington’s narrative.
“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,” department spokesman Marc Raimondi said in a statement. “We will continue to seek Mr. Assange’s extradition to the United States.”
While the US has a two-week window to make the appeal, the actual process could take months. Until Assange’s team applies for bail, it’s not clear if Baraitser will allow Assange to escape the harsh conditions of Belmarsh during the appeal process.
If the US convinces Baraitser that Assange will not be a suicide risk, and Monday’s ruling is overturned, the ultimate decision on whether or not to extradite Assange will be made by the UK’s home secretary.
Throughout the extradition hearing, Old Bailey heard testimony about Assange’s mental condition. In September, the court heard that Assange had been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, severe depression, and other conditions that put him at risk of suicide.
If extradited, Assange would be held in isolation in pre-trial detention. If convicted, he would likely end up in isolation in ADX Florence, a supermax prison in Colorado, home to some of the US’s most notorious and violent criminals.
“Faced with conditions of near-total isolation … I am satisfied that the procedures will not prevent Assange from finding a way to commit suicide,” Baraitser said.