Since Wikileaks started unleashing huge treasures of secrets from the US military and the State Department Over 10 years ago, Julian Assange argued that the US government would eventually seek to put him in a US prison. In a surprise twist, he can escape that fate – not because his organization’s leaks are protected by the right to free speech, but rather because of Assange’s sanity, and a court ruling. that subjecting him to incarceration in the United States could increase the risk of suicide.
In a courtroom in London on Monday morning, British judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled that the United States cannot extradite Assange to stand trial for criminal charges of hacking conspiracy and espionage law violations, which the US Department of Justice first denounced against Assange in 2019. Baraitser argued in his ruling that the extradition would be unacceptably “oppressive” due to Assange’s mental state – including diagnoses of Asperger’s syndrome, autism, and suicidal thoughts – and the risk that Assange would actually kill himself if those conditions were exacerbated by the state of isolation he would likely face in the U.S. justice system.
In his statement, Baraitser compared the “special administrative measures” that convicts of the Espionage Act often face in prisons like ADX Florence, the Colorado prison where Assange would likely be held in the United States, to those in Belmarsh British Prison where he has been housed since his arrest. She explained how he was only entitled to two illegal phone calls per month, refused all contact with other inmates in the prison and allowed two hours of solo playtime a day in a “cage”, as she did. described it.
“Faced with the conditions of almost total isolation and without the protective factors that moderate his risk in Belmarsh, I am convinced that the [suicide prevention] the procedures described by the United States will not prevent Mr. Assange from finding a way to kill himself, ”Judge Baraitser told the court. “For these reasons, I have decided that the extradition would be oppressive due to the mental health of Mr. Assange, and I order his release.
The U.S. government is expected to immediately appeal the ruling, a process that will likely begin in a few months. For now, Assange remains in custody pending a bail hearing. Nonetheless, the move represents a “brilliant and surprising victory for Julian,” said Naomi Colvin, UK-Ireland program director at Blueprint for Free Speech, who supported Assange throughout his trial. “The United States is going to appeal, but because this has shifted to medical evidence, the starting position has to be that Assange is likely to prevail in the High Court as well.”
While the judge’s decision represents a victory that could change Assange’s life, it does little to defend press freedoms that many observers considered to be on trial in Assange’s case. Until the last section of Baraitser’s statement, she rejected virtually every argument made by Assange’s defense attorneys against extradition in weeks of hearings, many of which focused on how the prosecution of Assange would represent an unprecedented criminalization of journalistic activity.
In particular, Baraitser focused on a time when Assange encouraged his source, then Army soldier Chelsea Manning, to unearth more confidential secrets for him, and offered to help him decipher the word of pass from another user so that she can more easily cover her tracks. it took root in the army network. U.S. prosecutors have never proven or even alleged that Assange followed through on the offer, or that he or Manning managed to crack a password while they were discussing it. Nonetheless, Baraitser argued that this incident helped show how “Mr. Assange’s activities have gone beyond the encouragement of a journalist.
This password cracking claim, however, only justifies charge of conspiracy of fraud and computer abuse faced by Assange, argues Trevor Timm, executive director of the Press Freedom Foundation and witness for Assange’s defense during extradition hearings. The remaining 17 counts, all of which relate more to the Espionage Act, would represent the first time in modern history that a publisher would be charged under the Espionage Act for primarily journalistic activities such as seeking classified information from sources, argues Timm. “If this case goes ahead, it would criminalize large swathes of information gathering and publication practices,” he said.