LONDON (AP) – The US government has pledged that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will not face harsh prison conditions if extradited in the face of American justice. That’s not enough to address concerns about his fragile mental health and high risk of suicide, the lawyer who defended him said Thursday. …
Assange’s lawyer Edward Fitzgerald said during a two-day hearing in the UK High Court that the Australian was too mentally ill to be extradited to the United States and face trial on espionage charges.
Washington is trying to overturn an earlier decision by a British lower court that rejected a US request to extradite Assange in connection with WikiLeaks’ publication of classified US military documents a decade ago. District Judge Vanessa Baraitzer ruled that Assange would likely commit suicide if held in the harsh conditions of a US prison.
A US government lawyer said on Wednesday that US authorities had promised Assange would not be held pending trial in the Supermax maximum 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 Fitzgerald argued that all US assurances were “covert, vague, or simply ineffective.” They do not eliminate the risk that Assange will end up in extreme isolation in the United States in the long term, he said, and the risk of Assange committing suicide remains significant if extradited.
“It is perfectly reasonable to consider extradition of a mentally ill person repressive, because his extradition could lead to his death,” he said. He added that judges should use their powers to “protect people from extradition to a foreign country where we have no control over what to do with them.”
Fitzgerald also said in a written statement that assurances that Assange could be transferred to an Australian prison if found guilty were “pointless.” He argued that Australia did not agree and the process could take a decade or more.
Assange’s defense team also referred to recent allegations that the CIA and the US government were considering plans to “seriously harm him,” including alleged discussions to “kidnap or poison” Assange, while he was at the Ecuadorian embassy in London. His lawyers have called on the court to consider whether the US authorities will stick to their assurances in light of the claims.
Assange has been charged with 17 espionage charges and one computer abuse charge in connection with WikiLeaks’s publication of thousands of leaked military and diplomatic documents. The maximum prison sentence is 175 years, although a US government lawyer said on Wednesday that the sentence could be much shorter.
Assange, 50, is currently held in London’s Belmarsh maximum security prison. He did not attend Thursday’s hearings, although he occasionally appeared by video link on Wednesday.
A two-day hearing before two judges, including England’s most senior judge Lord Chief Justice Ian Burnett, concluded Thursday, but a decision is not expected within weeks. The losing side could go to the UK Supreme Court.
The hearing was the latest in Assange’s long-standing battle against extradition to the United States. US prosecutors say Assange illegally helped US intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning steal secret diplomatic cables and war files that WikiLeaks later released.
Assange’s lawyers say he acted as a journalist and is entitled to First Amendment freedom of speech defense for publishing documents exposing US military action in Iraq and Afghanistan. His supporters also argue that the charges are politically motivated.
About 80 supporters staged a loud rally outside the London courtyard, playing music and chanting “Free Julian Assange!”
Assange’s fiancé, Stella Maurice, told supporters that the case was “political persecution” by the United States.
“If the US wants to treat Julian fairly, they must stop this case,” Maurice said to applause from supporters.
Jeremy Corbin, a former leader of the British opposition Labor Party, told the court that Assange told the truth about Afghanistan and Iraq and that he should not be sent by plane to the United States “under any circumstances.”
“He has not committed any crimes and is in a maximum security prison … if he moves to the United States, he may well commit suicide due to his mental health,” Corbin told reporters. “In another country, he would be hailed as an informant who told the truth about the dangers we all face, about the dangers the whole world faces.”
Assange has been held in a maximum security prison since he was arrested in April 2019 for missing bail during a separate legal battle. Prior to that, he spent seven years at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where in 2012 he applied for asylum to avoid extradition to Sweden on charges of rape and sexual assault.
Sweden dropped its sexual assault investigation in November 2019 because so much time had passed. A judge who blocked extradition in January ruled that he must remain in custody during any U.S. appeal.