For Julian Assange, it’s been a rollercoaster week.
On Monday, a London judge blocked a request by the U.S. government to extradite U.K.-based WikiLeaks founder Assange so that he can stand trial for a slew of charges of national security concern.
But on Wednesday, the same judge rejected his application for bail, citing that he “still has an incentive to abscond from these, as yet unresolved, proceedings”, according to the latest reports from court.
The matter has stirred up a great deal of international disagreement around an already highly controversial figure. So where does this leave Assange, and might he still face extradition to the U.S.?
In a decision delivered at Westminster Magistrates’ Court, on Monday District Judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled that, although the U.S. had a case for extradition, there was a risk that Assange’s mental health “would deteriorate causing him to commit suicide”, hastened by “his autism spectrum disorder”.
Karen Todner, extradition lawyer at Karen Todner Ltd, thinks the U.S. government will “find it difficult” to overturn this decision, and that it is “unlikely” the U.K. High Court will find fault in Baraitser’s judgment.
Echoing this point, Anthony Hanratty, extradition partner at BDB Pitmans, said the judge, in a “well-reasoned judgment”, found that “the U.S. prison system could not adequately protect against the risk of suicide.”
He added, however, that the fight was not over, as the U.S. will likely apply to appeal to London’s High Court. But he argued that Monday’s outcome was “very encouraging in how the court balanced the ‘special relation’ the U.K. and U.S. have, with the evidence before it”.
The charges against Assange are numerous and complex.
He stands accused of conspiring to hack into U.S. military software to obtain classified information of national security importance, and then publishing it to WikiLeaks.
Though Assange argues the information exposes abuses committed by the U.S. military, the U.S. believes the leak has endangered lives, and subsequently sought an extradition order in 2019. Though this initial request was discharged, in June 2020, a federal grand jury in Virginia launched a second request, which was blocked on Monday.
Assange had evaded extradition by spending around seven years inside the London-based Ecuadorian embassy, fearing a life sentence ,or worse, were he extradited.
Nick Vamos, partner at Peters & Peters, said that “the judge rejected all of the arguments about political motivation, journalistic protections and freedom of speech, so those who see Assange’s prosecution as an affront to democratic values or a U.S. political vendetta can take no comfort”.
“There is very little prospect of the U.S. dropping the charges, even under the incoming Biden administration,” Vamos said, adding that an appeal is “likely to be heard in the next two or three months” during which Assange will remain in custody.
“On appeal, the U.S. government has the opportunity to provide additional evidence or assurances to the High Court to address the judge’s findings about the likelihood that Assange will commit suicide. For example, it could agree not to detain him in a particular prison or under certain conditions, or to beef up his health care or suicide monitoring.”
Vamos believes, however, that U.S. authorities are “traditionally very resistant to accepting conditions from foreign courts on how they should treat suspects”.
“Assange’s last extradition battle went to the Supreme Court so this possibility certainly cannot be ruled out.”
The U.S. Department of Justice said it will “continue to seek Mr. Assange’s extradition to the United States” in a statement on Monday. The U.S. government has now less than 14 days to appeal the District Judge’s decision.
The U.S. government is being represented by James Lewis QC and Clair Dobbin of Three Raymond Buildings, and Joel Smith of Furnival Chambers, Edward Fitzgerald QC of Doughty Street Chambers, Mark Summers QC and Florence Iveson of Matrix Chambers are acting for Assange.
Following the rejection of his bail application, Assange will remain in the custody of U.K. law enforcement.
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