The judge, Vanessa Baraitser, said extradition would be “oppressive” because of his mental health, the Associated Press reported. Assange was at “real risk” of suicide, she said, adding that she was not satisfied that the U.S. prison system would be able to prevent him from ending his own life.
The U.S. government is expected to appeal the decision.
Assange, who published hundreds of thousands of secret government files about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as well as diplomatic cables between 2010 and 2011, faces a list of 18 federal charges including violating the Espionage Act and conspiring to hack government computers.
Among of the files published by Assange in 2010 was the “Collateral Murder” video, showing U.S. servicemen in Apache helicopters laughing as they killed at least a dozen civilians, including a Reuters journalist and driver, in 2007.
The files were passed to Assange by the whistleblower Chelsea Manning, a former U.S. Army intelligence analyst who the U.S. government says Assange “aided and abetted” in sending him classified documents, including by encouraging her to crack a password. Prosecutors say the classified documents included the un-redacted names of human sources who assisted U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, putting them “at a grave and imminent risk of serious physical harm.”
Lawyers for Assange claimed that he was acting as a journalist and should be protected under the U.S. First Amendment for exposing wrongdoing by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. But judge Baraitser rejected those claims, the Associated Press reported, saying his “conduct, if proved, would therefore amount to offenses in this jurisdiction that would not be protected by his right to freedom of speech.”
Assange, 49, received diplomatic asylum from Ecuador after breaching bail in the U.K. during an investigation into sexual assault allegations against him in Sweden. Swedish prosecutors dropped the case in November 2019, citing lack of evidence.
According to U.S. government prosecutors, Assange faces up to 175 years in jail in the U.S. if convicted there, though the government says the sentence is likely to be shorter. Manning’s sentence was commuted in 2017 after she served seven years of a 35-year sentence.
Press freedom advocates said extraditing Assange would have set a damaging precedent. “The case against Julian Assange is clearly politically motivated and intended to make an example of Assange and create a chilling effect on media around the world,” said Rebecca Vincent, international campaign director of Reporters Without Borders, in a statement ahead of the ruling. “If the U.S. government is successful in securing Assange’s extradition and prosecuting him for his contributions to public interest reporting, the same precedent could be applied to any journalist anywhere.”
British police arrested Assange in April 2019 after dragging him from the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he had been living under diplomatic protection for seven years.
Assange has been in jail in the U.K. since his arrest. In November 2019, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture raised concerns about Assange’s declining physical and mental health in confinement, saying his “continued exposure to arbitrariness and abuse may soon end up costing his life.”
Assange will now have the opportunity to apply for bail from Belmarsh high-security prison in London, where he is currently incarcerated. If granted, it would be his first time outside of confinement since he entered the Ecuadorian embassy in 2012.
If you or someone you know may be contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line. In the U.K., call Samaritans at 116 123. In emergencies, call 911 in the U.S., or seek care from a local hospital or mental health provider.