Why did a British judge reject the Trump administration's attempt to extradite Julian Assange, despite accepting "virtually all of the allegations" the U.S. government leveled against the WikiLeaks founder?
The answer lies not in the dire threat extradition would pose to press freedoms across the globe, but in the dangerous abomination that is the U.S. prison system.
In her 132-page ruling (pdf) issued Monday, Judge Vanessa Baraitser of the Westminster Magistrates' Court on Monday described the conditions Assange would face in the U.S. as "harsh" even compared to London's notorious maximum-security Belmarsh jail, where the publisher has been held since April of 2019.
"The one fact that swayed her into refusing the extradition was that the U.S. prison system is so brutal that it would increase the risk of suicide."
—John Rees, Don't Extradite Assange campaign
After dismissing arguments against extradition brought by Assange's legal team—including their warnings that the WikiLeaks founder would be denied a fair trial in the U.S.—Baraitser said (pdf) she believes that if confined to a U.S. supermax prison, "Mr. Assange's mental health would deteriorate causing him to commit suicide."
"Faced with the conditions of near total isolation without the protective factors which limited his risk at [Her Majesty's Prison] Belmarsh, I am satisfied the procedures described by the U.S. will not prevent Mr. Assange from finding a way to commit suicide," said Baraitser, "and for this reason I have decided extradition would be oppressive by reason of mental harm and I order his discharge."
As Shadow Proof managing editor Kevin Gosztola—who has been covering the extradition case from its inception—put it, "The United States government's mass incarceration system just lost them their case against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange."
Judge Baraitser accepted virtually all of allegations against Assange that made this a dangerous case for press freedom.
Despite the fact that the request was rejected, there is plenty in this ruling to cause alarm. Because someone else could easily be criminalized in future.
— Kevin Gosztola (@kgosztola) January 4, 2021
Lawyers for the U.S. government, which in 2019 charged Assange with 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act, said they will appeal Baraitser's decision as Assange's attorneys fight for his release on bail. If extradited to the U.S., Assange—whose health has declined precipitously in recent months due to conditions that physicians have condemned as torture—would face up to 175 years in a maximum-security prison.
The aggressive effort by U.S. authorities to extradite and punish Assange for publishing classified documents that exposed American war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan has been decried as a major threat to press freedoms everywhere, given that journalists regularly obtain and report on secret materials.
"We continue to believe that Mr. Assange was targeted for his contributions to journalism, and until the underlying issues here are addressed, other sources, journalists, and publishers remain at risk."
—Rebecca Vincent, Reporters Without Borders
While raising alarm over her dismissal of press freedom concerns, human rights groups organizations welcomed Baraitser's ruling against extradition as an important step in protecting Assange and other journalists around the world.
"Today's ruling is a huge sigh of relief for anyone who cares about press freedom," Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, said in a statement. "While the judge's opinion contains many worrying assertions that disregard journalists' rights, her rejection of the Trump administration's extradition request means the U.S. government likely won't be able to obtain any precedent that would criminalize common newsgathering and publishing practices. And that is a very good thing."
After joining others in applauding the judge's decision to reject the U.S. extradition request, Rebecca Vincent of Reporters Without Borders said she has "serious concerns about the substance of the judgment."
"We disagree with the judge's assessment that this case is not politically motivated, that it's not about free speech," said Vincent. "We continue to believe that Mr. Assange was targeted for his contributions to journalism, and until the underlying issues here are addressed, other sources, journalists, and publishers remain at risk."
In a column for The Guardian on Monday, Owen Jones wrote that "it is not to critique the soundness of Baraitser's legal judgment to argue that this was the right decision, but for the wrong reason."
"That a British court has ruled that the U.S. prison system is too barbaric to guarantee the safety of Assange tells its own story," Jones added. "But this is about something much bigger than Assange: it's about journalism, the free press, and most importantly of all, the ability to expose atrocities committed by the world's last remaining superpower."
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John Rees of the U.K.'s Don't Extradite Assange campaign said Monday that "it's an incredible judgement," noting that "95% of this judge's remarks supported the prosecution."
"She said there's no public interest defense, there's no journalistic defense, there's no political opinion defense," said Rees. "The one fact that swayed her into refusing the extradition was that the U.S. prison system is so brutal that it would increase the risk of suicide, and she wasn't willing to put him into an oppressive prison system."
Noting that the U.S. will appeal, Rees argued Monday's ruling marks "the beginning of the fight, not the end of the fight."
"But it's a terrific day," Rees added. "And if the bail application—which they're discussing inside the court right at this moment—goes through and Julian walks free, that will be a terrific watershed in this case."
— Mohamed Elmaazi (@MElmaazi) January 4, 2021
Speaking to the media Monday, Stella Moris, Assange's partner, expressed a similar sentiment, calling the ruling "the first step towards justice in this case."
"As long as Julian has to endure suffering and isolation as an unconvicted prisoner in Belmarsh Prison, and as long as our children continue to be bereft of their father's love and affection, we cannot celebrate," said Moris. "We will celebrate the day he comes home."
"We are pleased that the court has recognized the seriousness and inhumanity of what he has endured and what he faces. But let's not forget: the indictment in the U.S. has not been dropped," Moris added. "It continues to want to punish Julian, and make him disappear into the deepest, darkest hole of the U.S. prison system for the rest of his life. That can never happen. We will never accept that journalism is a crime in this country or any other."
“Today is the first step towards justice in this case.”
Julian Assange’s partner, Stella Moris responds to the ruling at the Old Bailey that the WikiLeaks founder cannot be extradited to the US.
— Sky News (@SkyNews) January 4, 2021
Nils Muižnieks, Amnesty International's Europe director, said in a statement Monday morning that "we welcome the fact that Julian Assange will not be sent to the USA and that the court acknowledged that due to his health concerns, he would be at risk of ill-treatment in the U.S. prison system."
"But the charges against him should never have been brought in the first place," added Muižnieks. "The fact that the ruling is correct and saves Assange from extradition does not absolve the U.K. from having engaged in this politically-motivated process at the behest of the USA and putting media freedom and freedom of expression on trial. It has set a terrible precedent for which the U.S. is responsible and the U.K. government is complicit."
Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) deputy executive director Robert Mahoney echoed Muižnieks, saying in a statement that the U.S. government's "decision to charge the WikiLeaks founder set a harmful legal precedent for the prosecution of journalists around the world simply for interacting with their sources."
"We urge the U.S. Department of Justice to refrain from further pursuing extradition through appeals and to drop all charges against Assange," said Mahoney.