On Monday, Julian Assange was saved from extradition to the US to face charges of espionage and computer hacking by a UK court. The Old Bailey in London rejected US extradition requests not on the grounds of free speech or a defence of his actions, but because Assange was deemed too high of a suicide risk to sit in an American jail.
The Judge in the case, Vanessa Baraitser, dismissed the defense’s claims that the charges in the US were politically motivated, but said that “the mental condition of Mr Assange is such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the United States of America”.
It’s been a lengthy and difficult process for Assange who, prior to arrest in London, spent seven years cooped up in the Ecuadorian Embassy trying to evade extradition to the US. What happens next is a matter for the courts, but it’s clear his ordeal is far from over.
Why is Julian Assange in Jail?
Assange is the founder and former director of WikiLeaks, the not-for-profit website publishing leaked documents and classified media. In 2010, WikiLeaks published a leaked video acquired by Chelsea Manning of a US military Apache helicopter brazenly gunning down more than a dozen civilians — including two journalists — after mistaking them for terrorists.
In the same year they later published hundreds of thousands of classified diplomatic cables, the largest set of confidential documents ever released to the public. This led the US government to launch a criminal investigation into WikiLeaks and the subsequent imprisonment of Chelsea Manning who was jailed for eight years.
During this time, charges were brought against Assange in Sweden for sexual assault. Believing the charges to be politically motivated, Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London to avoid extradition to the US where he was wanted for the WikiLeaks publications.
The case against him in Sweden was dropped in 2017 and in 2019, Ecuador withdrew its asylum for Assange, allowing for his arrest by UK police for breaching bail conditions. He was sentenced to 50 weeks in jail for his actions but is currently facing 17 charges relating to violations of the Espionage Act in the US which carries a total of 175 years in jail if convicted.
What Happens Now?
Since the court in London has rejected the extradition claims by the US on the grounds of mental health impacts likely to be suffered in America, he is now free to make bail applications.
Currently he remains in prison until Wednesday but the US Department of Justice has said it will appeal to London’s High Court or even the UK Supreme Court to overturn the Old Bailey ruling.
Assange applied for bail but had his application rejected by the judge who said that his efforts to evade capture by hiding in the Ecuadorean embassy show he is determined to escape.
“As a matter of fairness, the US must be allowed to challenge my decision,” Judge Baraitser said.
In the statement, it was noted that given there are a number of countries willing to offer asylum to Assange, it is likely that if he were granted bail he would flee.
Mexican President, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, has been a long-time supporter of Assange and has offered him protection if he makes it to the country.
There have also been calls for Prime Minister Scott Morrison to act to ensure the safety and security of Assange if he were to attempt to return home. Geoffrey Robertson, QC, who unsuccessfully defended Assange against extradition in 2010, implored the government to put its diplomatic skills to work on the matter.
Morrison himself has said that Assange would be free to return home if all charges were dropped. “He’s like any other Australian, he would be free to return home if he wished,” Morrison said to 3AW.
Assange’s fiancé and mother have both appealed directly to outgoing President Donald Trump to pardon him as well. Trump has repeatedly voiced his support for WikiLeaks in the past but appears unlikely to issue Assange a pardon.