LONDON (AFP) – A British judge yesterday blocked WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s extradition to the United States (US) to face espionage charges, finding he was at serious risk of suicide.
District Judge Vanessa Baraitser said the 49-year-old Australian publisher faced “oppressive” conditions in maximum-security isolation if detained in the US.
In court, Assange wiped his forehead as the decision was announced while his fiancee Stella Moris burst into tears and was embraced by WikiLeaks Editor-in-Chief Kristinn Hrafnsson.
Outside the Old Bailey court in central London, his supporters who had gathered since early morning erupted in cheers and shouted “Free Assange!”
Assange and his legal team have long argued that the protracted case, which has become a cause celebre for media freedom, was politically motivated.
It follows more than a decade of legal controversies but the ruling is still subject to appeal. Assange was remanded in custody.
Any decision to block extradition should meet a high bar given Britain’s treaty obligations, Baraitser said.
But facing the “harsh conditions” likely in the US jail system, Assange’s mental health would deteriorate, “causing him to commit suicide” with the determination of a person with autism spectrum disorder, she ruled, siding with a diagnosis by psychologists.
Baraitser rejected US experts’ testimony that Assange would be protected from self-harm, noting that others such as disgraced US financier Jeffrey Epstein had managed to kill themselves in custody despite wardens’ supervision.
“For this reason I have decided extradition would be oppressive by reason of mental harm and I order his discharge,” she said.
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 extradition request was not decided on press freedom grounds; rather the judge essentially ruled the US prison system was too repressive to extradite.”
Assange faced 18 charges in the United States relating to the 2010 release by WikiLeaks of 500,000 secret files detailing aspects of military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.
If convicted in the US, Assange faced up to 175 years in jail.