A lower U.K. court rejected a request by the U.S. to extradite Assange in January over WikiLeaks publication of secret military documents from America a decade earlier. District Judge Vanessa Baraitser determined that Assange who spent many years hiding in British prisons while he fights extradition was likely to die if he is held in harsh U.S. conditions.
An attorney representing the U.S. government appealed against the January decision and denied that Assange's mental state was too fragile for him to endure the U.S. judiciary system. James Lewis, a lawyer for the U.S. government, stated that Assange has no history of "serious and enduring mental illness" or is not so sick that he can't resist harming his self.
U.S. prosecutors indicted Assange for 17 espionage and one computer misuse charges. This is related to WikiLeaks publication of thousands of diplomatic and military documents. Although Assange faces a maximum sentence in prison of 175 years, Lewis stated that the longest possible sentence for this offense was 63 months.
Lewis stated that the American authorities had assured Assange that he would not be held in a high-security Supermax prison before his trial or be subject to isolation conditions. If convicted, he would be allowed to serve the sentence in Australia. The assurances were "binding on the United States," Lewis stated.
He said, "Once there's an assurance that he will receive the appropriate medical care and once it is clear that he will be sent back to Australia to complete any sentence, then we can confidently say that the district judge would have not decided the pertinent question in the manner she did."
U.S. claims that Michael Kopelman (a key defense witness), misled the judge by failing to mention that Stella Moris was Assange's partner in WikiLeaks' legal team. He also had two children with him. Lewis stated that this information was "very relevant to the question about suicide likelihood."
Edward Fitzgerald, Assange’s lawyer, claimed that U.S. lawyers were trying to "minimize Mr Assange’s mental disorder severity and suicide risk."
Fitzgerald stated in writing that Australia had not yet committed to taking Assange into custody if Assange is convicted. Fitzgerald stated that even if Australia agreed, the U.S. legal proceedings could take up to a decade and "during which Mr. Assange would remain in extreme isolation in an American prison."
Assange is currently being held in London's Belmarsh Prison. Assange was expected to attend the hearing via video link. However, Fitzgerald stated that Assange has been given a high dose medication and "doesn’t feel able" to attend.
Later, Assange appeared on the video link wearing a black mask and sat at a table in prison.
American prosecutors claim that Assange illegally assisted Chelsea Manning, an intelligence analyst for the U.S. Army, to steal classified diplomatic cables as well as military files that WikiLeaks published later. Assange's lawyers argue that Assange was acting as a journalist, and therefore is entitled to First Amendment freedom-of-expression protections for publishing documents that expose U.S. military wrongdoings in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Pro-Assange protesters held a noisy rally in front of London's neoGothic Royal Courts of Justice. They called the prosecution politically motivated. They called on President Joe Biden to end the legal proceedings that were started under Donald Trump's predecessor.
Ai Weiwei, a Chinese dissident artist, was among the demonstrators. She said Assange's case "relates" to her society, freedom of expression, individual human rights and that we must watch out for the government.
WikiLeaks supporters claim that Assange was spied upon while at Ecuador's embassy, London by a Spanish security company at the request of the CIA. This testimony -- which also suggests that Assange may have been abducted or killed -- is contrary to U.S. claims that he will be treated fairly.
The appeal is being heard by Lord Chief Justice Ian Burnett, England's highest-ranking judge. They are unlikely to issue a ruling within the next few weeks. The losing side may appeal to the U.K. Supreme Court.
Assange, 50 years old, is currently in prison after he was detained in April 2019 for failing to pay bail in a separate legal battle. He spent seven years in prison before that, hiding at the London Embassy of Ecuador for seven years. In 2012, he fled to avoid being extradited to Sweden where he was accused of sexual assault and rape.
Sweden ended the investigation into sex crime in November 2019, as too much time had passed. He must remain in custody for any appeal to the United States. The January judge who stopped extradition ordered him to stay there, stating that the Australian citizen has "an incentive" to escape if he is released.
Moris stated that it was impossible for the U.K. courts to agree to extradition outside court.
She said, "I hope that the courts will end these nightmares, that Julian can come home soon, and that wise heads prevail."