A British judge on Monday ruled that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange would not be extradited to the United States to be responsible for spy charges for publishing hundreds of thousands of secret documents online.
District Judge Vanessa Baraitser said the 49-year-old Australian publisher was at risk of suicide if sent into custody across the Atlantic.
“For this reason, I have decided that extradition would be oppressive due to mental injury and I order his discharge,” she added.
In court, Assange wiped his forehead when the decision was announced while his fiancée Stella Moris burst into tears and was embraced by WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson.
Assange’s defense “much stronger” than at first hearing, reports FRANCE 24’s Bénédicte Paviot
Outside the Old Bailey court in central London, his supporters, who had gathered early in the morning, broke into cheers and shouted “Free Assange!”.
Moris, who has two young sons with the Australian, said the verdict was “a victory” but she would not celebrate until he was free and also appealed to US President Donald Trump.
“Stop this now,” she said outside court. “Tear down these prison walls so that our little boys have their father, for Julian, the press, for all of us.”
Volatile American whistleblower Edward Snowden, who has lived in exile in Russia since 2013, said Monday that he hoped the refusal to extradite Assange would mark the “end” of trying to see WikiLeaks founders face spy charges in the United States.
In response to the news, the former US intelligence contractor tweeted: “Let this be the end of it.”
Snowden himself is wanted in the United States on espionage charges after he leaked information that showed that agents from the National Security Agency collected telephone records from millions of American citizens.
Assange and his legal team have long argued that the long-running case, which has become a cause of media freedom, was politically motivated.
It follows more than a decade of legal controversy, but the decision can still be appealed. Assange was detained in custody, but a bail hearing could be heard later Monday.
The US non-profit Freedom of the Press Foundation said the case against Assange was “the most dangerous threat to US press freedom in decades”.
“The request for extradition was not decided on the grounds of freedom of the press; rather, the judge ruled in principle that the US prison system was too oppressive to be extradited.”
Assange faced 18 charges in the United States over WikiLeak’s release of 500,000 secret files in 2010 describing aspects of military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.
If convicted in the United States, Assange faces up to 175 years in prison.
Defense witnesses called during the hearing said that his history of depression meant that he would be a suicide risk if he was sent to the United States and locked up in a maximum security prison.
He has also complained about hearing imaginary voices and music during his detention.
Prior to the decision, both Germany and a UN human rights expert expressed concern about human rights and the humanitarian problems caused by the extradition.
Assange has a respiratory problem that makes him more exposed to Covid-19, which has infected several prisoners in the high-security prison where he has been held in London.
WikiLeaks Hrafnsson had told AFP on Sunday that he was “almost certain” that the court would rule Assange and complained about bias in the proceedings.
UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer has called on Donald Trump to forgive Assange, saying he is not “an enemy of the American people”.
“By forgiving Mr. Assange, Mr. President, you would be sending a clear message of justice, truth, and humanity to the American people and the world,” he wrote in December.
“You would rehabilitate a brave man who has suffered injustice, persecution and humiliation for more than a decade, simply for telling the truth.”
The prospect of a possible pardon from the outgoing US leader has gained ground after a lot of others were granted to a number of Trump’s political allies.
Assange lawyer Antoine Vey told Jowharthat he hopes the future Biden administration will “look differently” at Assange’s case and said the WikiLeaks founder had “done the job for a journalist”.
“It is fundamental that we retain this right to information,” Vey said
The British hearing was told that Trump promised to forgive Assange if he testified that Russia hacked into the computer servers of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) during the 2016 election campaign.
WikiLeaks later published the email, which turned out to be politically damaging to Trump’s Democratic rival Hillary Clinton before the vote.
Washington claims that Assange helped intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning steal the 2010 documents before revealing confidential sources around the world.
After Sweden first issued an arrest warrant for Assange in 2010 on charges of sexual assault, he sought asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he stayed from 2012 to 2019.
In April 2019, Ecuador, then ruled by right-wing President Lenin Moreno, revoked his citizenship. British police pulled Assange out of the embassy.
He was arrested for violating the bail, but remained in custody pending the extradition request.
The previous Swedish abuse investigation against him was later dropped due to lack of evidence.
( Jowharwith AFP)