Was the UK Right to Refuse to Extradite Assange to the US?
A British judge recently ruled that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange cannot be extradited to the US to face charges of espionage and of hacking government computers.
Judge: Assange is a High Suicide Risk
Delivering her ruling, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser said Assange was likely to be held in conditions of isolation in a so-called supermax prison in the US. She said that safety procedures described by US authorities would not stop him from potentially finding a way to take his own life, which she believes is a real possibility given his struggles with serious depression.
Lawyers for US authorities are to appeal against the ruling, which was delivered at the criminal court by Baraitser on Monday, Jan. 4.
Assange is currently incarcerated at HMP Belmarsh, a high-security prison facility that houses some of Britain’s most dangerous criminals. Assange is there because he was found guilty of skipping bail in 2012; he previously escaped to Ecuador’s embassy rather than hand himself in to British authorities for possible extradition to Sweden. Investigators in the Scandinavian nation wanted to question him over sexual assault allegations linked to two women.
Was it Right to Deny Extradition?
The US Department of Justice has indicted Assange on 18 counts, alleging 17 forms of espionage and one instance of computer misuse crimes linked to Wikileaks’ dissemination of caches of secret US military documents provided to him by former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning.
However, if Assange’s mental health is at risk, then it is only right that the Wikileaks founder is not extradited back to the US. This is similar to the case of self-confessed hacker Gary McKinnon, who was wanted for targeting US government computers. In 2012 the British government barred his extradition, saying that he was too ill to face trial abroad. The same principle applies in the Assange case.
There are Powerful Arguments in Favor of Granting Assange Freedom
Of course, there is a strong case as to why the Wikileaks founder should not be prosecuted for espionage other than for mental health reasons. Edward Fitzgerald QC, the activist’s lawyer, argued over a year ago that his offences were political, so were not sufficient to merit his extradition to America.
This argument is supported by the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI), which states that a potential extradition of Mr. Assange from the UK to the US would:
- be in contravention of Article 4 (1) of the Extradition Treaty between the US and the UK;
- constitute a violation of freedom of expression;
- set a dangerous precedent in the restriction of press freedom in the UK and the US;
- potentially subject him to an unfair trial in the US.
Assange Should Stay in the UK for Now
Despite this, certain figures within the US believe that Wikileaks should not be classed as a media organization. When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo served as the CIA’s director, he said during his first public speech as head of the spy agency that “Wikileaks walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service.”
Assange’s detractors claim he does not write stories or interview anyone and that the dissemination of unclassified documents should not count as journalism. Yet the weakness with this argument is that it is a slippery slope toward clamping down on national security journalism that holds the powerful to account. The Obama administration ultimately decided they could not prosecute the Wikileaks founder for revealing national security secrets for that reason.
Regardless of whether the government classes Wikileaks as a news organization is besides the point. Prosecuting Assange would result in the gradual erosion of press freedom. John Kiriakou, a former CIA analyst who blew the whistle on a U.S. government-sanctioned torture program in 2007, states that if you are able to prosecute someone who has a powerful case to be classed as a publisher, what is next?
Much to the US government’s disappointment, it appears unlikely that Assange will ever face trial in the near future. But until they can guarantee that his trial will be fair and that they can safeguard his mental health, he has every right to stay in the UK.