A British judge today rejected the US’ request to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, saying that Assange would be at greater risk of suicide in the American prison system.
“I am satisfied that, in these harsh conditions, Mr. Assange’s mental health would deteriorate causing him to commit suicide with the ‘single minded determination’ of his autism spectrum disorder. I find that the mental condition of Mr. Assange is such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the United States of America,” District Judge Vanessa Baraitser wrote in the ruling.
While Assange had “no episodes of self-harming behaviour or suicide attempts during his period of imprisonment at Belmarsh,” a prison in London, Baraitser wrote that Assange’s mental health would deteriorate “if he is subjected to the extreme conditions of SAMs,” the “special administrative measures” used by the US to protect national security information. Baraitser wrote:
[M]any of the protective factors currently in place at HMP Belmarsh would be removed by these conditions. Mr. Assange’s health improved on being removed from relative isolation in healthcare. He has been able to access the support of family and friends. He has had access to a Samaritans phoneline. He has benefited from a trusting relationship with the prison In-Reach psychologist. By contrast, a SAMs regime would severely restrict his contact with all other human beings, including other prisoners, staff and his family. In detention subject to SAMs, he would have absolutely no communication with other prisoners, even through the walls of his cell, and time out of his cell would be spent alone.
Epstein suicide cited in ruling
Defense witness Maureen Baird, who was a warden at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York, “described the only form of human interaction coming from correctional officers who open the viewing slot during their inspection rounds of the unit, from institution staff walking through the unit during their required weekly rounds, or when meals are delivered through the secure meal slot in the cell door,” the judge wrote. Baraitser also cited research finding that inmates’ communication with family is “so limited and degraded through delay and constant monitoring, as to render it worthless.”
Baraitser’s ruling noted that “Jeffrey Epstein committed suicide at the MCC jail in August 2019” and Chelsea Manning “was hospitalised after an attempt to commit suicide at the ADC jail [William G. Truesdale Adult Detention Center in Alexandria, Virginia] in 2020.”
“Faced with conditions of near total isolation and without the protective factors which moderate his risk at HMP Belmarsh, I am satisfied that the procedures described by Dr. Leukefled [a psychologist employed as an administrator by the US Bureau of Prisons] will not prevent Mr. Assange from finding a way to commit suicide,” Baraitser wrote.
A psychiatrist who served as a US witness said that Assange’s suicide risk related to extradition was not “substantial.” However, Baraitser accepted the opinions of defense witnesses, including neuropsychiatrist Michael Kopelman, who “diagnosed Mr. Assange with a recurrent depressive disorder, which was severe in December 2019 and sometimes accompanied by psychotic features (hallucinations) and often with ruminative suicidal ideas. He also diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) relating to an incident when Mr. Assange was 10 years old; generalised anxiety disorder with symptoms that overlap with features of the depression and PTSD; and traits of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).”
Assange’s symptoms in December 2019, before he was transferred from the isolated healthcare unit to the prison’s general population, “included loss of sleep, loss of weight, impaired concentration, a feeling of often being on the verge of tears, and a state of acute agitation in which he was pacing his cell until exhausted, punching his head or banging it against a cell wall,” the judge’s ruling said. Assange told Kopelman that he had been thinking about suicide hundreds of times a day.
“Professor Kopelman considered that, if housed in conditions of segregation and solitary confinement [in the US], Mr. Assange’s mental health would deteriorate substantially resulting in persistently severe clinical depression and the severe exacerbation of his anxiety disorder, PTSD and suicidal ideas. He has not tolerated the relative isolation of the healthcare unit well,” the judge wrote.
US to appeal; Assange lawyers ask for release
Assange is still in prison in London, and the US said it would appeal. “Lawyers for the US government said they would appeal the decision, and the US Department of Justice said it would continue to seek Assange’s extradition,” the Associated Press reported today. “Assange’s lawyers said they would ask for his release from a London prison where he has been held for more than 18 months at a bail hearing on Wednesday,” it added. Assange was arrested by British police in April 2019.
Despite blocking Assange’s extradition on mental-health grounds, the judge ruled that the US’ extradition request was not “an abuse of process” and that “the defence has not established that Mr. Assange has been the target of a politically motivated prosecution.”
“There is no evidence that federal prosecutors were pressurised by the Trump administration into bringing charges. Nor is there evidence that the federal prosecutors who brought these charges have acted in bad faith,” the judge wrote. She also “found that Mr. Assange’s conduct is capable of amounting to an offence in England and Wales.”
The ruling said the US extradition request alleged that Assange was involved in “a broad conspiracy with Ms. Manning and other unnamed persons to commit computer intrusion,” and that he “aided and abetted Ms. Manning” in gaining access to confidential documents later published by WikiLeaks. The US further alleged “the publishing of documents which contained the names of informants,” and the extradition “request sets out in detail not just the damaging nature of the disclosures but also that Mr. Assange knew that the dissemination of the names of individuals endangered them.”
The judge was not convinced by the Assange defense’s argument that he “was acting within the parameters of responsible journalism” when WikiLeaks published 251,000 secret US diplomatic cables without redactions in 2011.
“[I]n stark contrast to Mr. Assange’s final, indiscriminate disclosure of all of the data, newspapers who had worked with him from both sides of the Atlantic condemned his decision,” she wrote. “These traditional news media outlets contrasted their own careful editorial decisions not to publish these names, with what they describe as a ‘data dump’ carried out by Mr. Assange.”
Attorney Eric Lewis told the British court that Assange, if extradited, faces a “best-case scenario” of 20 years in prison. Assange is 49 years old.