The US appeal against the dismissal of its application to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, was heard in London’s Royal Courts of Justice on 27 and 28 October. But the outcome may not be known for several weeks. The hearing arose from District Judge Vanessa Baraitser’s dismissal of the US government application to extradite Assange last January. She found that conditions in US prisons created a significant risk that Assange would commit suicide and that would be ‘oppressive’ if he were incarcerated there.
WikiLeaks extradition court case
Counsel for the US government said that Judge Baraitser had misinterpreted the Extradition Act, given undue weight to the single psychiatrist who had detected significant suicide risk, and had been swayed by alarmist accounts of the likely length of sentence that Assange might face.
Assange’s defence council responded by saying:
“Mr Assange would inevitably be in solitary confinement if he is sent to the US. There is a significant increase in chance of suicide if you have autistic spectrum disorder and there is an increase of the chance of suicide if you are in solitary confinement.”
Whilst the first day was taken up with hearing the case for the US appeal, the second and final day was devoted to the detailed case for upholding the refusal. Credible reports of CIA plots to assassinate or kidnap Julian Assange make it impossible to know what would happen were he were extradited, Assange’s defence counsel Edward Fitzgerald QC told the court.
“Mr Assange has also faced menacing, threatening surveillance, and there have been attempts to steal DNA samples from his children”, Fitzgerald said, which render US assurances unbelievable.
He was responding to James Lewis QC, who is putting the case for the extradition. Lewis painted US penal conditions in positive terms: “Mr Assange would have a cell mate, the average sentence for these crimes is only five years, and he would probably have his time in detention taken off his sentence.”
Assange faces up to 175 years in jail
The US wishes to extradite and prosecute the WikiLeaks founder for 18 offences relating to the leaking and publication of the Afghan and Iraq war logs. If convicted he could face a maximum sentence of 175 years, likely to be spent in extreme isolation.
The National Union of Journalists has stated that the “US charges against Assange pose a huge threat, one that could criminalise the critical work of investigative journalists and their ability to protect their sources”.
The appeal case was heard by Lord Justice Holroyd and the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett. Concluding the hearings, the Lord Chief Justice said, “You have given us much to think about and it will take some time to make our decision”.
Outside court, Assange’s partner Stella Moris said it was “completely unthinkable that the UK 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.”
Whatever the outcome of this hearing, the losing side could seek to appeal to the UK Supreme Court.