Julian Assange's lawyer dismisses US promises over extradition as 'meaningless'

WikiLeaks founder 'too ill' to be extradited to face spying charges

A lawyer defending WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has argued that promises offered by the US government that he would not be subjected to harsh prison conditions are "meaningless".

Edward Fitzgerald said during a two-day hearing at Britain's High Court that the Australian's mental health was too severe to be extradited to the US to face trial on espionage charges.

The US government is seeking to overturn an earlier ruling by a lower British court that refused its request to extradite Assange over WikiLeaks’ publication of secret US military documents a decade ago.

District Judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled in January that Assange was likely to kill himself if held under harsh US prison conditions.

On Wednesday, a lawyer for the US government said American authorities have promised that Assange would not be held before trial in a top-security 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 Mr Fitzgerald argued that the US assurances were all “caveated, vague or simply ineffective" and do not remove the risk of him being detained in extreme isolation.

“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 said 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, Mr Fitzgerald said 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.

US 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 US government said 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 on Thursday, although on Wednesday he appeared by video link at times.

The hearing was the latest in his long-running battle to fight extradition to the US.

Prosecutors say Assange unlawfully helped US 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 protection for publishing documents that exposed US military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan. His supporters also argue the prosecution case was politically motivated.

About 80 supporters staged a rally outside the London court before the hearing, playing music and chanting “Free Julian Assange!”

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 US “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,” Mr Corbyn said.

“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.”

The two-day hearing has been held before two judges, including England’s most senior judge Lord Chief Justice Ian Burnett, who will deliver a ruling on the case at a later date.

The losing side could then seek to appeal to the UK Supreme Court.

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 British judge who blocked extradition in January ordered that he must stay in custody during any US appeal.

Updated: October 28th 2021, 4:22 PM