UK court overturns block on Julian Assange’s extradition to the US

WikiLeaks founder is expected to appeal the court's decision, which opens the door for his extradition

Supporters of Julian Assange hold signs and a banner outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London on Friday. Reuters / Henry Nicholls

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is one step closer to being sent from the UK to the US against his will after the American government won its bid to overturn a judge’s decision not to extradite him.

Mr Assange, 50, is wanted in America over an alleged conspiracy to obtain and disclose national defence information following WikiLeaks’s publication of hundreds of thousands of leaked documents relating to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

US authorities brought a High Court challenge against a January ruling by then-district judge Vanessa Baraitser that Mr Assange should not be sent to the US due to his poor mental health state. She had cited a real and “oppressive” risk of suicide.

After a two-day hearing in October, the Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett, sitting with Lord Justice Holroyde, ruled in favour of the US on Friday.

The senior judges found the judge had based her decision on the risk of Mr Assange being held in highly restrictive prison conditions if extradited.

However, the US authorities later gave assurances that he would not face those strictest measures either pre-trial or post-conviction unless he committed an act in the future that required them.

“That risk is in our judgment excluded by the assurances which are offered," said Lord Burnett. "It follows that we are satisfied that, if the assurances had been before the judge, she would have answered the relevant question differently.”

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been held in Belmarsh Prison, east London, since 2019. His lawyers argue his mental health state is poor and therefore he is unfit to be extradited to the US. PA

“That conclusion is sufficient to determine this appeal in the USA’s favour,” he added.

It is expected that Mr Assange will attempt to bring an appeal over this latest decision. Loyal supporters who have followed him for years gathered outside the court on Friday morning holding banners and placards.

In November he was granted permission to marry his girlfriend Stella Moris in prison.

The High Court was previously told that blocking Mr Assange’s removal from Britain due to his mental health risks “rewarding fugitives for their flight”.

James Lewis QC, for the US government, said the district judge based her decision on Mr Assange’s “intellectual ability to circumvent suicide preventative measures”, which risked becoming a “trump card” for anyone who wanted to oppose their extradition, regardless of any resources the other state might have.

Mr Lewis argued that the four “binding” diplomatic assurances made were a “solemn matter” and “are not dished out like smarties”.

These included that Mr Assange would not be submitted to special administrative measures (SAMs) and detained at the ADX Florence Supermax jail if extradited and that the US would consent to his request to be transferred to Australia to serve any prison sentence he may be handed.

The US authorities also argued Mr Assange is fit to be extradited, with Mr Lewis telling the court his mental illness “does not even come close” to being severe enough to prevent being sent overseas.

However, lawyers defending Mr Assange, who opposed the Americans’ bid to overturn the extradition block, had argued that the assurances over the whistleblower’s potential treatment were “meaningless” and “vague”.

Edward Fitzgerald QC said the judge had produced a “carefully considered and fully reasoned judgment”, adding it was “clear” she had “scrupulously applied the test for oppression in cases of mental disorder”.

Mr Fitzgerald later said assurances not to impose SAMs on Mr Assange or hold him at the ADX Florence Supermax jail pre-trial or post-conviction do not remove the risk of “conditions of administrative isolation”.

The court also heard he had faced a “menacing, threatening and frightening” situation while under surveillance at the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

Mr Assange, an Australian citizen, was holed up in the embassy in London for seven years after entering the building in June 2012 to claim diplomatic asylum. He had been wanted by Swedish police for questioning over four alleged sexual offences, which he denied. The allegations were later dropped.

Mr Fitzgerald argued in written submissions that claims of “extreme measures of surveillance”, alongside subsequent “recent disclosures about CIA plans from the same period in time to seriously harm Julian Assange”, justified earlier concerns for the safety and privacy of his girlfriend Ms Moris.

He has been held in Belmarsh Prison in east London since 2019 after being carried out of the embassy by police before being arrested for breaching his bail conditions.

Updated: December 10th 2021, 11:39 AM