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Wikileaks founder Julian Assange (file photo) Wikileaks founder Julian Assange (file photo)  (AFP or licensors)

British court halts extradition of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange

A British court says the founder of whistleblower website Wikileaks, Julian Assange, cannot be extradited to the United States, where he is wanted for revealing state secrets. The judge cited concerns over Assange's mental health and risk of suicide.

By Stefan J. Bos

It was news his supporters had been awaiting: a London court halted the extradition of the Australian born 49-year-old Julian Assange to the United States.

U.S. authorities wanted to prosecute him on 18 counts relating to WikiLeaks' release of state secrets. They included vast troves of confidential American military records. Assange's whistleblower website also released diplomatic cables that prosecutors claimed put lives in danger.

Listen to Stefan Bos' report

Prosecutors say he conspired to hack into U.S. military databases to acquire sensitive secret information relating to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, published on the Wikileaks website. He says the information exposed abuses by the U.S. military.

Assange's lawyers had argued the entire prosecution was politically motivated, powered by U.S. President Donald Trump. They claimed that Assange's extradition would pose a severe threat to the work of journalists.

But at a hearing at London's Old Bailey, Judge Vanessa Baraitser rejected nearly all his legal team's arguments. However, in a significant turnaround, she said she could not approve Assange's extradition citing concerns about his mental health. The judge added there was a real risk he would commit suicide.

Father pleased

Her ruling came as a relief for Assange's biological father, John Shipton. He had accused the U.S. of wanting to break his son for exposing what he claims were war crimes. "The ceaseless anxiety that Julian's been under for now ten years – it has had a profoundly deleterious effect," he told  BBC television.

"I can't speculate onto his state of mind. But I imagine that he will be really worried because being sent to the United States is a death sentence," Shipton stressed. 

Julia Assange, who wore a blue suit and green face mask in the dock, was seen closing his eyes as the judge announced he wouldn't be extradited.

His fiancee, Stella Moris, wept. The two became a couple while he was hiding in the Ecuadorian embassy for seven years.

They now have two young sons who she said are awaiting their father. "I had hoped that today would be the day that Julian would come home," she said. "Today is not that day, but that day will come soon."

No celebration

She added: "As long as Julian has to endure suffering in isolation as an unconvicted prisoner at Belmarsh prison. As long as our children continue to be robbed of their father's love and affection, we cannot celebrate. We will celebrate the day he comes home."

She urged U.S. President Donald Trump "to end this now: Mr. President, tear down these prison walls, let our little boys have their father."

Assange was detained in 2019 and jailed for 50 weeks for breaching his bail conditions after going into hiding in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. When he fled to the embassy, he faced extradition to Sweden on allegations of sexual assault, which he denied. That case was later dropped.

He then faced extradition to the United States on separate charges. His lawyers claim that Assange faces a possible penalty of up to 175 years in jail if convicted in the United States. However, the U.S. government said the sentence was more likely to be between four and six years.

U.S. authorities have 14 days to lodge an expected appeal against the court's ruling not to extradite him. That's why Assange is not due to be freed from London's Belmarsh Prison immediately.

04 January 2021, 16:30