Announcing her verdict, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange should not face extradition to the US to answer charges of espionage over the leak of thousands of classified documents.
Handing down her ruling at London’s Central Criminal Court, the judge raised concerns over Assange’s mental health and risk of suicide in a US prison.
The prosecution has given notice of appealing over the decision and have 14 days to lodge their grounds.
District Judge Vanessa Baraitser said: “Faced with the conditions of near-total isolation without the protective factors which limited his risk at HMP Belmarsh, I am satisfied the procedures described by the US will not prevent Mr Assange from finding a way to commit suicide and for this reason I have decided extradition would be oppressive by reason of mental harm and I order his discharge.”
Press freedom arguments rejected
However, in her ruling, the judge rejected the defence arguments of freedom of speech and that the prosecution was politically motivated.
She said: “If the allegations are proved then the agreement with Ms Manning and other groups of computer hackers took him outside any role of investigative journalism.
“He was acting to further the overall objective of Wikileaks to obtain protected information by hacking, if necessary.”
The judge said Assange’s dealings with Ms Manning “went beyond the mere encouragement of a journalist”.
She said Assange was “well aware” of the danger to informants by disclosing unredacted names in leaked documents.
If Assange’s conduct was proved it would amount to offences in this jurisdiction and he would not be protected by freedom of speech, she said.
The judge added: “Free speech rights don’t provide unfettered discretion for some, like Mr Assange, to decide the fate of others.”
On the claim that the charges were politically motivated, she said: “There was insufficient evidence to find the prosecutors responsible for bringing these charges were pressurised by the Trump administration.
“There is little or no evidence to indicate hostility by President Trump to Mr Assange or WikiLeaks.”
She added: “I accepted Mr Assange has political opinions. However, I was satisfied that the federal prosecutors who acted to bring these charges did so in good faith.”
Assange wiped his brow after the decision was announced, while his fiancee, Stella Moris, with whom he has two young sons, wept.
She was embraced by Kristinn Hrafnsson, Wikileaks editor-in-chief, who sat next to her in court as the judgment was delivered.
Assange has been remanded in custody at high-security Belmarsh Prison ahead of a bail application on Wednesday.
In her judgment, Judge Baraitser referred to evidence of Assange’s mental state.
She said that “facing conditions of near-total isolation” in US custody, she was satisfied that authorities there would not be able to prevent Assange from “finding a way to commit suicide”.
His case has become a global cause celebre for freedom of speech and the media.
The 49-year-old, who fathered two children while holed up at the Ecuadorian embassy in London for seven years, has already spent 16 months at Belmarsh top security jail.
Assange faces 18 charges including a plot to hack computers and conspiracy to obtain and disclose US national defence information.
He denies plotting with defence analyst Chelsea Manning to crack an encrypted password on US Department of Defence computers and that unredacted leaks by Wikileaks put US informants’ lives at risk.
During four weeks of evidence, witnesses told the court the prosecution under the Donald Trump administration has been politically motivated, after an investigation launched under President Barack Obama failed to bring charges.
His lawyer Jennifer Robinson described a meeting in August 2017 in which he was offered a pardon allegedly on behalf of Trump to identify the source of the Democratic National Committee leaks to Wikileaks which boosted him in the 2016 election in order to end speculation over Russian involvement.
If Assange was convicted in the US, he could face up to 175 years in a Supermax ADX facility in Colorado, where convicted terrorist Abu Hamza has been housed under Sams in solitary confinement, the court heard.
Manning had been sentenced to 35 years over her role in leaking classified material, but was given clemency after seven years.
However, she was jailed again for contempt in 2019 and fined for refusing to testify in court about Assange.
The UK’s National Union of Journalists said the ruling brings a “dark episode for media freedom” to an end.
NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet said: “This decision will be welcomed by all who value journalists’ ability to report on national security issues.
“However, whilst the outcome is the right one, Judge Vanessa Baraitser’s judgement contains much that is troubling.
“Her basis for dismissing the US’ extradition request was the suicide risk that Assange poses in a US penal system that would probably have kept him in near-total isolation.
“The judge rejected the defence case that the charges against Assange related to actions identical to those undertaken daily by most investigative journalists.
“In doing so, she leaves open the door for a future US administration to confect a similar indictment against a journalist. Given his lengthy period of incarceration, it is surely also time to grant Assange bail so that he can join his young family.”
The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists’ deputy executive director Robert Mahoney said he was “heartened” by the ruling and urged the US not to pursue any appeals or charges further.
“The US government’s decision to charge the Wikileaks founder set a harmful legal precedent for the prosecution of journalists around the world simply for interacting with their sources,” Mahoney said.
The US non-profit Freedom of the Press Foundation tweeted: “The case against Julian Assange is the most dangerous threat to US press freedom in decades. This is a huge relief to anyone who cares about the rights of journalists.
“The extradition request was not decided on press freedom grounds; rather, the judge essentially ruled the US prison system was too repressive to extradite. However, the result will protect journalists everywhere.”
Read Press Gazette’s key coverage of the Assange extradition case:
- World leaders past and present urge UK Government to end Assange extradition proceedings
- Poll: Six in ten Press Gazette readers want UK Government to intervene
in Assange extradition case
- Peter Oborne on Julian Assange: Future generations of journalists will not forgive us if we do not fight extradition
- Ex-Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger: ‘Surprising more can’t see Assange case is worrying for all journalists’
- Some 169 lawyers and legal groups join calls for Julian Assange extradition to halt