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Judge to give verdict on Julian Assange’s extradition after Christmas

Judge Vanessa Baraitser said today that she would make a ruling in early January on whether WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should be extradited to the US

A judge will decide in January 2021 if WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should be extradited to the US to face espionage and computer hacking charges.

Judge Vanessa Baraitser said today that she would issue a decision on whether to extradite Assange, who for now will remain in custody in Belmarsh Prison, on 4 January next year.

The 49-year-old faces up to 175 years in prison following allegations by the US government that he played a role in “one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the US”.

He has been indicted on 17 counts under the Espionage Act and one count under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

The WikiLeaks founder has been fighting extradition since April 2019, when Ecuador revoked his asylum status and he was arrested after he was carried out of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

Prosecution is ‘political’

His fiancée Stella Moris said today that the case was a fight for Julian’s life, a fight for press freedom and a fight for truth.

“This case is already chilling press freedom. It is a frontal assault on journalism, on the public’s right to know and our ability to hold governments, domestic and foreign, to account.”

Assange’s defence team argues that the US has brought the prosecution for political reasons, and argues that the case will have serious ramifications for press freedom if it is allowed to go ahead.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been fighting extradition since April 2019

The WikiLeaks founder is being extradited for trial in the US over WikiLeaks’ publication of tens of thousands of classified documents leaked by former US soldier Chelsea Manning in 2010.

The US government alleges that Assange purposely published thousands of documents containing the unredacted names of innocent people who risk their lives to provide information to the US and its allies.

Assange claims that the extradition is politically motivated and was instigated by the Donald Trump regime.

The Barack Obama administration had previously concluded that it could not prosecute WikiLeaks without also prosecuting journalists and newspapers that receive and publish classified documents, defence witnesses argued.

Most important revelations of criminal state behaviour

The court heard from multiple witnesses, including lawyers, journalists and US constitutional experts over the course of a four-week hearing at the Old Bailey.

Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers which changed the course of the Vietnam war in the 1970s, told the court that WikiLeaks’ disclosures of the Chelsea Manning documents were among the most important revelations of criminal state behaviour in US history.

Other witnesses said WikiLeaks publications had alerted the world to civilian deaths in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and to the extraordinary rendition and torture of inmates in Guantanamo Bay detention centre, in the face of official denials.

A forensic computer expert called into question US allegations that Assange made an agreement with Chelsea Manning to decrypt a password hash that would allow her to access documents anonymously.

But Assange faces further claims, included in a superseding indictment, that he conspired to encourage hackers to obtain classified government documents in speeches at conferences and by publishing a list of “most wanted leaks”.

Suicide risk

Assange’s mental health and risk of suicide is one of the major factors that will determine whether the WikiLeaks founder can be extradited to the US.

In two precedent-setting cases, the UK refused the extradition of Gary McKinnon in 2012 and Lauri Love in 2018 to face hacking charges in the US on the grounds that they had Asperger syndrome and depression – conditions that would put them at risk of suicide.

The court heard from medical health experts that Assange had been diagnosed with physical and mental health conditions, including Asperger syndrome.

Michael Kopelman, head of neuropsychiatry at King’s College London, said Assange had autism, suffered bouts of depression and has had auditory hallucinations. “As far as a psychiatrist can say, the risk of suicide should extradition happen is very high,” he said.

The claims were disputed by medical experts for the prosecution who argued that Assange had only moderate depression, did not exhibit signs of Asperger syndrome and that his risk of suicide could be managed.

Assange would be held in supermax prison

If the extradition goes ahead, Assange would be held under special administrative measures (SAMs) – equivalent to solitary confinement – at the Truesdale Adult Detention Centre in Alexandria, Virginia, as he awaited trial.

He would be detained in a cell the size of a parking space in the prison’s “X block” for 22 to 23 hours a day without contact from other inmates, Yancey Ellis, former public defender, told the court.

If convicted, Assange would be held at a supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, alongside convicted terrorist Abu Hamza, where he would be confined to a cell for 23 to 24 hours a day to protect national security.

Assange’s defence lawyers brought examples of apparent political influence in Assange’s prosecution during the 18-day hearing.

US congressman Dana Rorabacher visited Assange in the Ecuadorian Embassy in 2017, purporting to offer a presidential pardon from Trump.

He asked Assange to help resolve ongoing speculation about Russian involvement in leaks from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) published by WikiLeaks which benefited the Trump campaign.

In another example, US journalist and Trump supporter Cassandra Fairbanks claimed she had been told by a Republican party supporter close to the president about plans for Assange’s arrest months before it happened.

Legal meetings put under surveillance

In evidence given on the final day of the hearing, Assange’s solicitor Gareth Peirce said in written submissions that Assange’s legally privileged documents had been seized from the embassy.

She said that, with the involvement of a member of the Ecuadorian intelligence service, two diplomatic pouches containing USB sticks had been taken in a diplomatic bag to Ecuador and sent to the US.

Peirce claimed that three legally privileged meetings with Assange in 2017 and 2018 at the Ecuadorian Embassy had been subject to surveillance without her knowledge.

Photographs were also taken of Assange’s Spanish lawyer Aitor Martinez’s legal file when he left the room during a meeting with his client.

Peirce said that there was prevailing anxiety and fear that legal meetings were being monitored, which had a chilling effect on the ability of lawyers to prepare a defence.

The court heard that an investigation by a Spanish court into alleged surveillance at the embassy conducted by security company UC Global could have an impact on the case.

Judge Baraitser refused to admit a witness statement from Peirce addressing new allegations contained in the second indictment served in July.

The defence had argued that they should be able to address “fresh and different” allegations made in the indictment, which had become apparent just before the hearing.

Assange’s fiancée, speaking after the hearing, said that most of the charges against Assange relate to him receiving and possessing government documents.

“Under oath, the prosecution concedes that it has no evidence that a single person has ever come to any physical harm because of these publications,” she said.

Assange fathered two children with Moris during his stay at the embassy. “Our children need their father,” she said.

Assange will appear in Westminster Magistrates’ Court on 20 October for an administrative hearing.

Read more about Julian Assange’s September extradition hearing at the Old Bailey

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