We were told to expect a ruling out of London today in the extradition hearing for Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. If brought to the United States, Assange will face trial on a number of charges that could potentially land him in jail for the rest of his life. District Judge Vanessa Baraitser delivered that ruling this morning, dashing the hopes of American prosecutors, at least for the time being. After rejecting all of the procedural claims being made by Assange’s attornies as to why his extradition would be unlawful, the judge turned around and declared that Assange’s mental health precluded him from being sent to America, denying the extradition request. The United States will appeal the ruling immediately. (NBC News)
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange cannot be legally extradited to the United States to face espionage charges over the publication of secret American military documents, a British court ruled Monday.
District Judge Vanessa Baraitser delivered her decision at London’s Old Bailey court, in a case that has pitted national security against freedom of expression. A crowd of reporters gathered outside as a small group of supporters chanted “Free Julian Assange.”
Lawyers acting on behalf of the U.S. government have already said they will appeal the decision.
If successful Assange, 49, could still be transferred to the U.S., where he faces a maximum of 175 years in prison if convicted on 17 espionage charges and one charge of computer misuse.
As I mentioned above, the judge rejected all of Assange’s attorneys’ claims about the extradition being illegal. There is a provision in our extradition treaty with the Brits that says a person can’t be extradited if the motivation for the extradition is political. The judge threw cold water on that one. She also rejected their bizarre claim that any jury hearing Assange’s case in America would be made up of “government employees.” They also attempted to claim that Assange “would not be afforded the protections of the U.S. Constitution,” a claim that Baraitser rejected.
So why isn’t he on his way to Virginia? Because the one thing that the judge did agree with was that Assange’s health would preclude his being sent to America. Specifically, his mental health. Baraitser agreed with the claim that he’s suffering from clinical depression and presents a risk of suicide. He’s also allegedly autistic, though at a highly functional level. She also agreed that the United States would be unable to ensure he couldn’t kill himself once he was locked up in an American prison. (Sounds like a swipe at our penal system relating to Jeffrey Epstein, doesn’t it?)
This isn’t the first time we’ve heard this defense. Back in June, Assange’s legal team claimed that he was too ill to extradite. But at the time, they didn’t specify what sort of illness he was suffering from. Presumably, he would have recovered from any physical malady by now, so perhaps they were alluding to his mental health even then.
This doesn’t mean that Assange is in the clear permanently, however, and that’s because of two different things. First of all, the U.S. is appealing the ruling and they might still win. But more importantly, all of the procedural arguments against the legality of his extradition have now been shot down in court. The only reason he can’t be extradited is that he’s not well enough. But what if he gets better? If he’s released and is subsequently seen out on the town, partying with his celebrity pals, the case could be made that he’s no longer depressed and the process could begin anew.
A couple of things could derail that hope, however. First of all, this wasn’t a trial to actually extradite Assange. It was only a hearing to determine if he could be extradited. Even if we had prevailed, the Prime Minister and Parliament would still have had to make the final call and there’s no assurance that it would go our way.
The other problem is that if Assange is released as the judge ordered, it’s not impossible that he could find a way out of the country without anyone knowing. If he turns up in Venezuela or Russia (where he could hang out with his buddy and fellow espionage aficionado Edward Snowden) we’ll probably never get our hands on him.
One exit question to consider. Last year the United States denied a British request to extradite Anne Sacoolas. Could this decision have involved a bit of turnabout being fair play?