LONDON — U.S. authorities launched a new battle on Wednesday to make Julian Assange face American justice, telling British judges that if they agree to extradite the WikiLeaks founder on espionage charges, he could serve any U.S. prison sentence he receives in his native Australia.
In January, a lower U.K. court refused a U.S. request to extradite Assange over WikiLeaks’ publication of secret American military documents a decade ago. District Judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled that Assange, who has spent years in hiding and in British prisons as he fights extradition, was likely to kill himself if held under harsh U.S. prison conditions.
Appealing against the January decision, an attorney for the U.S. government on Wednesday denied that Assange’s mental health was too fragile to withstand the U.S. judicial system. Lawyer James Lewis said Assange “has no history of serious and enduring mental illness” and does not meet the threshold of being so ill that he cannot resist harming himself.
U.S. prosecutors have indicted Assange on 17 espionage charges and one charge of computer misuse over WikiLeaks’ publication of thousands of leaked military and diplomatic documents. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison, although Lewis said “the longest sentence ever imposed for this offense is 63 months.”
Lewis said American authorities had promised that Assange would not be held before trial in a top-security “Supermax” prison or subjected to strict isolation conditions, and if convicted would be allowed to serve his sentence in Australia. Lewis said the assurances “are binding on the United States."
“Once there is an assurance of appropriate medical care, once it is clear he will be repatriated to Australia to serve any sentence, then we can safely say the district judge would not have decided the relevant question in the way that she did," he said.
The U.S. also says a key defense witness, neuropsychiatrist Michael Kopelman, misled the previous judge by omitting to mention that Stella Moris, a member of WikiLeaks’ legal team, was also Assange’s partner and had two children with him. Lewis said that information was “a highly relevant factor to the question of likelihood to suicide.”
Assange's lawyer, Edward Fitzgerald, accused U.S. lawyers of seeking to “minimize the severity of Mr Assange’s mental disorder and suicide risk.”
Fitzgerald said in a written submission that Australia has not yet agreed to take Assange if he is convicted. Even if Australia did agree, Fitzgerald said the U.S. legal process could take a decade, “during which Mr. Assange will remain detained in extreme isolation in a U.S. prison.”
Assange, who is being held at London’s high-security Belmarsh Prison, had been expected to attend the two-day hearing by video link, but Fitzgerald said Assange had been put on a high dose of medication and “doesn't feel able to attend.”
Assange later appeared on the video link at times, seated at a table in a prison room wearing a black face mask.
Since WikiLeaks began publishing classified documents more than a decade ago, Assange has become a flashpoint figure. Some see him as a dangerous secret-spiller who endangered the lives of informers and others who helped the U.S. in war zones. Others say WikiLeaks shone a light on official malfeasance that governments would like to keep secret.
American prosecutors say Assange unlawfully helped U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning steal classified diplomatic cables and military files that WikiLeaks later published. Lawyers for Assange argue that he was acting as a journalist and is entitled to First Amendment freedom of speech protections for publishing documents that exposed U.S. military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Several dozen pro-Assange protesters held a boisterous rally outside London’s neo-Gothic Royal Courts of Justice on Wednesday, calling the prosecution politically motivated. They urged U.S. President Joe Biden to drop the legal proceedings, which were begun under his predecessor, Donald Trump.
The demonstrators included Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, who said Assange's case “relates to our society, it relates to our freedom of expression, it relates to our individual human rights, and we have to watch the government."
WikiLeaks supporters say testimony from witnesses during the extradition hearing that Assange was spied on while in Ecuador's embassy in London by a Spanish security firm at the behest of the CIA — and that there was even talk of abducting or killing him — undermines U.S. claims he will be treated fairly.
The two justices hearing the appeal — one is England’s most senior judge, Lord Chief Justice Ian Burnett — are not expected to give their ruling for several weeks. The losing side could seek to appeal to the U.K. Supreme Court.
Assange, 50, has been in prison since he was arrested in April 2019 for skipping bail during a separate legal battle. Before that he spent seven years holed up inside Ecuador’s London embassy, where he fled in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden to face allegations of rape and sexual assault.
Sweden dropped the sex crimes investigations in November 2019 because so much time had elapsed. The judge who blocked extradition in January ordered that he must stay in custody during any U.S. appeal, ruling that the Australian citizen “has an incentive to abscond” if he is freed.
Outside court, Moris said it was “completely unthinkable that the U.K. courts could agree” to extradition.
“I hope the courts will end this nightmare, that Julian is able to come home soon and that wise heads prevail," she said.