Jan 4, 2021 - World

U.K. judge rules Julian Assange should not be extradited to the U.S.

 Julian Assange gestures to the media from a police vehicle on his arrival at Westminster Magistrates court on April 11, 2019 in London, England.
Julian Assange in a police vehicle outside Westminster Magistrates court in London in 2019. Photo: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange must not be extradited to the U.S., where he's wanted on charges of violating the Espionage Act and hacking government computers, because of the high risk of suicide in U.S. custody, a British judge in London ruled Monday.

Why it matters: The ruling, which will be appealed by the U.S., is a huge win for Assange after a years-long battle. The case has raised significant questions about First Amendment protections for publishers of classified information, as Assange argues he was acting as a journalist when he published leaked documents on Iraq and Afghanistan.

  • The 49-year-old Australian faces up to 175 years in prison in the U.S. if ultimately extradited and found guilty of all charges in the 18-count indictment filed against him.
  • His case has become highly politicized in the U.S., after WikiLeaks was accused in 2016 of releasing Democratic emails hacked by Russian intelligence in order to damage Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. The charges he faces are not related to the 2016 election.

The big picture: The U.S. Department of Justice accused Assange of conspiring in 2010 with Chelsea Manning, who was imprisoned from 2010 to 2017 for leaked thousands of military and diplomatic documents, to crack a password on Defense Department computers.

  • Last year, the DOJ charged Assange in a superseding indictment for recruiting and conspiring with computer hackers, including those affiliated with the hacking groups LulzSec and Anonymous.
  • He was arrested in 2019 in London's Ecuadorian Embassy after the nation withdrew its offer of asylum. He spent seven years there after Sweden announced rape charges against him that have since been dropped.

Between the lines: Assange's legal team and defenders say the prosecution against him is politically motivated, and that he is being kept in detention conditions that violate human rights.

For the record: District Judge Vanessa Baraitser did not decide on Assange's guilt in the ruling, only whether the U.S. extradition request complied with a 2003 extradition treaty. This requires judges to determine whether defendants could also face trial in the U.K. over the crimes they're accused of.

  • Baraitser did, however, dismiss claims from the defense that Assange should be protected under freedom of press, saying in court that his activities "went beyond the mere encouragement of a journalist."
  • The U.S. is expected to appeal the case.
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