A British judge has rejected a U.S. request to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to face charges over the publication of secret U.S. military documents because of concerns over his mental health.
London Judge Vanessa Baraitser on January 4 outlined evidence of Assange’s suicidal thoughts and said: "The overall impression is of a depressed and sometimes despairing man fearful for his future."
The U.S. government said it would appeal the decision, which could lead to more legal wrangling in the 10-year saga seen by the 49-year-old’s supporters as a cause for media freedom.
In the United States, Assange faces 17 espionage charges and one charge of computer misuse over WikiLeaks’ publication of thousands of leaked military and diplomatic documents in 2010 and 2011.
His lawyers say he could go to prison for 30 to 40 years, but prosecutors have said he would face no more than about five years in jail.
Assange was arrested in London at the request of the United States after he was evicted in April 2019 from the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he had been sheltering since 2012 after Ecuador granted him political asylum.
Assange’s lawyers say the indictment is a politically motivated abuse of power that will stifle press freedom and put journalists around the world at risk.
They argued at his extradition hearing in September that Assange is entitled to First Amendment protections for the publication of the leaked documents.
Assange also suffers from wide-ranging mental health issues, including suicidal tendencies that could be exacerbated if he is imprisoned in the United States, his defense team said.
Lawyers acting on behalf of the U.S. government said in their closing arguments after the four-week hearing that issues raised by Assange’s defense team were neither relevant nor admissible.
They said Assange’s mental state "is patently not so severe so as to preclude extradition.”
U.S. prosecutors are set to appeal the January 4 decision to London's High Court, and the case could go all the way to the U.K. Supreme Court.
U.S. prosecutors and security officials regard the Australian-born founder of WikiLeaks as an enemy of the state whose actions imperiled the lives of agents whose names were in the leaked material.
The U.S. authorities say more than 100 people were put at risk by the disclosures and about 50 had received assistance, with some fleeing their home countries with their spouses and families to move to the United States or another safe country.
Critics of Assange point out that his WikiLeaks rarely leaked material from authoritarian states.
Dozens of human rights and press freedom organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Reporters Without Borders, oppose the proposed extradition, and a German government official has urged authorities to consider his physical and mental health.
"The human rights and humanitarian aspects of a possible extradition must not be overlooked,” Human Rights Commissioner Baerbel Kofler said in a statement. "It is imperative that the physical and mental health of Julian Assange be taken into account when deciding whether to extradite him to the U.S.," she added, stressing Britain is "bound by the European Convention on Human Rights."
There is also the possibility of a pardon issued by U.S. President Donald Trump. Stella Moris, Assange’s partner and the mother of his two sons, has appealed to Trump to grant a pardon before he leaves office on January 20.