District Judge Vanessa Baraitser says Julian Assange likely to commit suicide if sent to the US.

WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange leaves Westminster Magistrates Court in London, Britain on January 13, 2020. (FILE)
WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange leaves Westminster Magistrates Court in London, Britain on January 13, 2020. (FILE) (Simon Dawson / Reuters)

A British judge has rejected the United States' request to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to face espionage charges, saying it would be "oppressive" because of his mental health.

District Judge Vanessa Baraitser said on Monday that Assange was likely to commit suicide if sent to the US, adding the extradition would be "oppressive".

"Faced with conditions of near-total isolation ... I am satisfied that the procedures (outline by US authorities) will not prevent Mr Assange from finding a way to commit suicide," she said.

The US government said it would appeal the decision.

Assange's lawyers plan to ask for his release from a London prison where he has been held for more than a year-and-a-half.

Snowden welcomes court order

Fugitive US whistleblower Edward Snowden said he hoped the British refusal to extradite Assange would mark "the end" of attempts to see the WikiLeaks founder face espionage charges in the United States.

Snowden is himself wanted in the United States on espionage charges after he leaked information showing that agents from the National Security Agency were collecting telephone records from millions of US citizens.

He has been living in exile in Russia since 2013 and last year announced he intends to become a dual US-Russian citizen. 

People celebrate after a judge ruled that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange cannot be extradited to the United States, outside the Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court, in London, Britain, January 4, 2021.
People celebrate after a judge ruled that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange cannot be extradited to the United States, outside the Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court, in London, Britain, January 4, 2021. (Reuters)

Charges against Assange

US prosecutors have indicted Assange on 17 espionage charges and one charge of computer misuse over WikiLeaks' publication of leaked military and diplomatic documents a decade ago. 

The charges carry a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison.

Lawyers for the 49-year-old Australian argue that he was acting as a journalist and is entitled to First Amendment protections of freedom of speech for publishing leaked documents that exposed US military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

The judge, however, said Assange's actions, if proven, would "amount to offences in this jurisdiction that would not be protected by his right to freedom of speech."

WikiLeaks case a collective fight

Lawyers for the US government deny that Assange is being prosecuted merely for publishing the leaked documents, saying the case "is in large part based upon his unlawful involvement" in the theft of the diplomatic cables and military files by US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning.

The prosecution of Assange has been condemned by journalists and human rights groups, who say it undermines free speech around the world.

"The mere fact that this case has made it to court, let alone gone on this long, is a historic, large-scale attack on freedom of speech," said WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson. 

"This is a fight that affects each and every person's right to know and is being fought collectively."

'First step towards justice'

Assange's fiancee Stella Moris said the UK court ruling was "the first step towards justice in this case".

Moris, who has two young sons with the Australian, said the ruling was "a victory" but she would not celebrate until he was free and also appealed to US President Donald Trump.

"End this now," she said outside the Old Bailey court in central London. 

"Tear down these prison walls, that our little boys have their father, for Julian, the press, for all of us."

Assange's legal troubles

Assange's legal troubles began in 2010 when he was arrested in London at the request of Sweden, which wanted to question him about allegations of rape and sexual assault made by two women. 

In 2012, to avoid being sent to Sweden, Assange sought refuge inside the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he was beyond the reach of the UK and Swedish authorities, but also effectively a prisoner, unable to leave the tiny diplomatic mission in London’s Knightsbridge area.

The relationship between Assange and his hosts eventually soured, and he was evicted from the embassy in April 2019. 

British police immediately arrested him for jumping bail in 2012.

Sweden dropped the sex crimes investigations in November 2019 because so much time had elapsed but Assange remains in London's high-security Belmarsh Prison, brought to court in a prison van throughout his extradition hearing.

READ MORE: UN rights experts cite concern at 'disproportionate' Assange detention

Source: TRTWorld and agencies