LONDON – U.S. government promises that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange would not face harsh prison conditions if he is extradited to face American justice are not enough to address concerns about his fragile mental health and high risk of suicide, a lawyer defending him argued Thursday.
Assange’s lawyer, Edward Fitzgerald, said during a two-day hearing at Britain's High Court that the Australian was too mentally ill to be extradited to the United States to face trial on espionage charges.
Washington is seeking to overturn an earlier ruling by a lower British court that refused a U.S. request to extradite Assange over WikiLeaks’ publication of secret American military documents a decade ago. District Judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled that Assange was likely to kill himself if held under harsh U.S. prison conditions.
On Wednesday, a lawyer for the U.S. government said that American authorities have promised that Assange would not be held before trial in a top-security “Supermax” prison, or subjected to strict isolation conditions. He also said that if convicted, Assange would be allowed to serve his sentence in Australia, his home country.
But Fitzgerald argued that the U.S. assurances were all “caveated, vague, or simply ineffective.” They do not remove the risk of Assange being detained in extreme isolation in the U.S. in the long term, he said, and the risk of Assange killing himself remained substantial if he is extradited.
“It is perfectly reasonable to find it oppressive to extradite a mentally disordered person because his extradition is likely to result in his death,” he said. He added that judges should use their power to “protect people from extradition to a foreign state where we have no control over what will be done to them."
In a written submission, Fitzgerald also said that the assurance that Assange could be transferred to an Australian prison if convicted is “meaningless." Australia has not indicated its consent, and the process could take a decade or more, he argued.
Assange’s defense team also referred to recent allegations that the CIA and the U.S. government had considered plans to “seriously harm” him — including alleged discussions to “kidnap or poison” Assange —while he was inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. His lawyers urged the court to consider whether U.S. authorities were likely to stick to their assurances in light of the claims.
U.S. prosecutors have indicted Assange on 17 espionage charges and one charge of computer misuse over WikiLeaks’ publication of thousands of leaked military and diplomatic documents. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison, though a lawyer for the U.S. government said Wednesday the sentence could be much shorter.
Assange, 50, is currently being held at London’s high-security Belmarsh Prison. He did not attend the hearing Thursday, although on Wednesday he appeared by video link at times.
The two-day hearing before two judges, including England’s most senior judge Lord Chief Justice Ian Burnett, concluded Thursday but a ruling is not expected for weeks. The losing side could seek to appeal to the U.K. Supreme Court.
The hearing was the latest in Assange’s long-running battle to fight extradition to the U.S. American prosecutors say Assange unlawfully helped U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning steal classified diplomatic cables and military files that WikiLeaks later published.
Assange’s lawyers argue that he was acting as a journalist and is entitled to First Amendment freedom of speech protections for publishing documents that exposed U.S. military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan. His supporters also argue the prosecution case was politically motivated.
About 80 supporters staged a noisy rally outside the London court, playing music and chanting “Free Julian Assange!”
Assange’s fiancée, Stella Moris, told supporters that the case was “political persecution” by the U.S.
“If the U.S. wants to treat Julian fairly they should drop this case,” Moris said, as supporters cheered and applauded.
Jeremy Corbyn, former leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, said outside the court that Assange has told the truth about Afghanistan and Iraq, and that he should not be flown to the U.S. “under any circumstances.”
“He has committed no crime and he’s in a maximum security prison ... if he moved to the United States, he may well, because of his mental health condition, take his own life,” Corbyn told reporters. “In a different country he would be hailed as a whistleblower who told the truth about the dangers we are all facing, the dangers the whole world is facing.”
Assange has been held in a high-security prison since he was arrested in April 2019 for skipping bail during a separate legal battle. Before that he spent seven years inside Ecuador’s London embassy, where he sought asylum in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden to face allegations of rape and sexual assault.
Sweden dropped the sex crimes investigations in November 2019 because so much time had elapsed. The judge who blocked extradition in January ordered that he must stay in custody during any U.S. appeal.