In a London courtroom on Friday morning, Julian Assange suffered a devastating blow to his quest for freedom. A two-judge appellate panel of the United Kingdom’s High Court ruled that the U.S.’s request to extradite Assange to the U.S. to stand trial on espionage charges is legally valid.
As a result, that extradition request will now be sent to British Home Secretary Prita Patel, who technically must approve all extradition requests but, given the U.K. Government’s long-time subservience to the U.S. security state, is all but certain to rubber-stamp it. Assange’s representatives, including his fiancee Stella Morris, have vowed to appeal the ruling, but today’s victory for the U.S. means that Assange’s freedom, if it ever comes, is further away than ever: not months but years even under the best of circumstances.
In endorsing the U.S. extradition request, the High Court overturned a lower court’s ruling from January which had concluded that the conditions of U.S. prison — particularly for those accused of national security crimes — are so harsh and oppressive that there is a high likelihood that Assange would commit suicide. In January’s ruling, Judge Vanessa Baraitser rejected all of Assange’s arguments that the U.S. was seeking to punish him not for crimes but for political offenses. But in rejecting the extradition request, she cited the numerous attestations from Assange’s doctors that his physical and mental health had deteriorated greatly after seven years of confinement in the small Ecuadorian Embassy where he had obtained asylum, followed by his indefinite incarceration in the U.K.
In response to that January victory for Assange, the Biden DOJ appealed the ruling and convinced Judge Baraitser to deny Assange bail and ordered him imprisoned pending appeal. The U.S. then offered multiple assurances that Assange would be treated “humanely” in U.S. prison once he was extradited and convicted. They guaranteed that he would not be held in the most repressive “supermax” prison in Florence, Colorado — whose conditions are so repressive that it has been condemned and declared illegal by numerous human rights groups around the world — nor, vowed U.S. prosecutors, would he be subjected to the most extreme regimen of restrictions and isolation called Special Administrative Measures (“SAMs”) unless subsequent behavior by Assange justified it. American prosecutors also agreed that they would consent to any request from Assange that, once convicted, he could serve his prison term in his home country of Australia rather than the U.S. Those guarantees, ruled the High Court this morning, rendered the U.S. extradition request legal under British law.
What makes the High Court’s faith in these guarantees from the U.S. Government particularly striking is that it comes less than two months after Yahoo News reported that the CIA and other U.S. security state agencies hate Assange so much that they plotted to kidnap or even assassinate him during the time he had asylum protection from Ecuador. Despite all that, Lord Justice Timothy Holroyde announced today that “the court is satisfied that these assurances” will serve to protect Assange’s physical and mental health.
The effective detention by the U.S. and British governments of Assange is just months shy of a full decade. Ecuador granted Assange asylum in August 2012 on the ground that his human rights were imperiled by U.S. attempts to imprison him for his journalism. For the next seven years, Assange remained in that embassy — which is really a tiny apartment in central London — with no outdoor space other than a tiny balcony, which he typically feared using due to the possibility of assassination. Ecuador withdrew its asylum in 2019 after its sovereignty-protective president Rafael Correa was succeeded in office by the meek and submissive Lenin Moreno. Trump officials led by then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador Richard Grenell persuaded and coerced the new Ecuadorian president to withdraw Assange’s asylum protection, clearing the way for London police to enter the building and arrest him on April 11, 2019. Ever since, Assange has been imprisoned in the high-security Belmarsh prison, described in the BBC in 2004 as “Britain’s Guantanamo Bay.” He has thus spent close to seven years inside the embassy and two years and eight months inside Belmarsh: just five months shy of a decade with no freedom.
The British government justified Assange’s 2019 arrest by pointing to pending charges of “bail-jumping”: meaning that he sought and obtained legal asylum from Ecuador in 2012 rather than attend a scheduled hearing in a British court over whether he should be extradited to Sweden to be questioned about claims of sexual assault made by two Swedish women. Swedish prosecutors closed that investigation in 2017, citing the time that had elapsed. But once he was arrested, Assange was sentenced by a British judge on the bail-jumping charges to 50 weeks in prison, close to the maximum punishment allowed by law (one year). With the Swedish case closed, Assange was set to finally be free after he served that 50-week jail term.
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