Press freedom advocates condemned a U.K. court ruling that would allow WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to be extradited, while his fiancée vowed that his legal team would appeal the decision.
The High Court’s decision on Dec. 10 to overturn an earlier ruling not to extradite Assange, bringing him a step closer facing espionage charges in the U.S., will “prove historic for all the wrong reasons,” said Christophe Deloire, secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), in a statement.
“We fully believe that Julian Assange has been targeted for his contributions to journalism, and we defend this case because of its dangerous implications for the future of journalism and press freedom around the world,” Deloire said.
The U.S. authorities have charged Assange with 18 counts related to WikiLeaks’ publication of thousands of U.S. diplomatic and military documents. These were mostly in 2009 and 2010. The U.S. government’s High Court appeal challenged an initial ruling made Jan. 4 by a London district judge, declining to extradite Assange to the U.S. to face those charges, largely due to the risk he would take his own life in a maximum security prison.
One of the High Court judges, Lord Justice Holroyde, said on Friday that the court would allow Assange’s extradition on the basis that the U.S. had offered a package of assurances concerning his proposed treatment in custody.
The agreement included an agreement for Assange’s release to Australia, to fulfill his sentence. He was also not going to ADX Florence. He was also not subject to extremely restrictive solitary confinement if he didn’t commit any other offense.
They said that they had been satisfied with the U.S. promises to lower suicide risk. Holroyde said Friday that the district judge “ought to have notified the U.S. of her provisional view, to afford it the opportunity to offer assurances to the court.”
In an October hearing, Assange’s lawyers criticized the U.S. government’s assurances, calling them “conditional” and “aspirational”. Representing Assange, Edward Fitzgerald QC said that Australia had not yet agreed to take Assange in if he was convicted, and he predicted his client would be put in solitary confinement “as soon as he arrives in America.”
Yahoo News reported in September that Assange had been assassinated, poisoned, or abducted by the CIA. “Given the revelations of surveillance in the embassy and plots to kill him,” Fitzgerald argued during the October hearing, “there are great grounds for fearing what will be done to him” if he is extradited to the U.S.
Learn more What to Know About Julian Assange’s Extradition Appeal
The British High Court court rejected those concerns on Friday, on the basis that the U.S. government’s assurances sufficiently protected Assange from harm.
Assange’s fiancée, Stella Moris, said in a statement: “We will appeal this decision at the earliest possible moment,” Reuters reported.
In the previous proceedings in January, lawyers for the U.S. government argued that Assange’s psychiatrist had failed to disclose Assange’s relationship with Moris, a lawyer originally on his legal team, and the couple’s two children, who were conceived during Assange’s stay in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Assange could take his own lives if he had the responsibility of the children, according to U.S. legal experts.
The High Court judges said in their ruling that there were “substantial reasons” for the lower court judge to “question the impartiality and reliability” of the psychiatrist’s opinion. They added that they would have expected to see a “fuller analysis” of that judge’s reasons for accepting it as evidence, “not least because it was central to the success of Mr Assange on the single ground which led to his discharge.”
Prior to High Court ruling, a coalition of 25 press freedom, civil liberties, and international human rights organizations signed a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland urging the U.S. to drop its appeal in Assange’s extradition case, saying that he acted in the public interest.
“We appreciate that the government has a legitimate interest in protecting bona fide national security interests, but the proceedings against Mr. Assange jeopardize journalism that is crucial to democracy,” the letter said. “In our view, a precedent created by prosecuting Assange could be used against publishers and journalists alike, chilling their work and undermining freedom of the press.”
The coalition said that the reports of a CIA plot to assassinate Assange “only heightens our concerns about the motivations behind this prosecution, and about the dangerous precedent that is being set.”
Following the ruling, RSF director of international campaigns Rebecca Vincent said in a statement: “This ruling marks a bleak moment for journalists and journalism around the world, on the very day when we should be celebrating the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to two journalists and urging states to uphold the commitments to media freedom they have just reaffirmed at the US-led Summit for Democracy.”
Learn more ‘We’re At War.’ Nobel Peace Prize Winner Dmitry Muratov on the Fight for the Free Press in Russia
“We call on the US government to truly lead by example and close this case now before further damage is done,” Vincent said.
The U.K. and U.S. are ranked 33rd and 44th respectively out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index.
Assange will be kept in Belmarsh Prison’s high-security Belmarsh Prison. Priti Patel (British Home Secretary) was ordered to review the case and decide if extradition should proceed.