LONDON — WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange came one step closer to freedom this week after a British judge ruled that he cannot be extradited to the U.S., where he is wanted over the publication of hundreds of thousands of classified military documents and diplomatic cables in 2010 and 2011.
Judge Vanessa Baraitser said extradition would be oppressive due to Assange's mental health.
The verdict was a step in the right direction for Assange and his legal team but the 49-year-old remains locked up in a prison in southeast London.
His lawyers made a bail application at Westminster Magistrates Court in London on Wednesday but it was denied.
"There are substantial grounds for believing that if Mr Assange is released today he would fail to surrender to court to face the appeal proceedings," said Baraitser, according to Reuters.
The Australian activist founded WikiLeaks in 2006 to publish news leaks and classified information provided by anonymous sources.
Over the years, Assange has won a smattering of journalism awards including The Economist's New Media Award in 2008 and the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in 2011. Throughout the trial, Assange has maintained that he is little more than a journalist and a publisher.
Assange has spent most of the last decade in confinement.
It started in 2012 when he holed himself up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London after he lost a U.K. Supreme Court appeal of his extradition to Sweden, where authorities wanted to question him about rape allegations.
While the Swedish case was subsequently dropped, Assange was evicted from the embassy in April 2019 and arrested for skipping bail in the U.K. He was sentenced to 50 weeks in prison.
The fact Assange skipped bail before means he was less likely to be granted bail on Wednesday, according to some lawyers. Joshua Rozenberg QC, a lawyer who isn't directly involved in the Assange case, told CNBC that Assange's track record was against him.
"The law says 'the defendant need not be granted bail if the court is satisfied that there are substantial grounds for believing that the defendant … would fail to surrender to custody,'" Rozenberg pointed out.
"He has done that before," said Rozenberg. "It must count against him."
Stella Morris, Assange's fiancée, urged President Donald Trump to "end this now" and pardon Assange.
"Mr President, tear down these prison walls," she said outside the Old Bailey criminal court in London. "Let our little boys have their father. Free Julian, free the press, free us all."
Baraitser ruled on Monday that while U.S. prosecutors met the tests for Assange to be extradited, the U.S. was incapable of preventing him from attempting to commit suicide.
"Faced with the conditions of near total isolation without the protective factors which limited his risk at HMP Belmarsh, I am satisfied the procedures described by the U.S. will not prevent Mr Assange from finding a way to commit suicide and for this reason I have decided extradition would be oppressive by reason of mental harm and I order his discharge," she said.
Baraitser dismissed almost every other argument that Assange's defense team put forward, raising concern among free press advocates in the process.
Following the court ruling, author and historian Noam Chomsky said in an online press conference: "We can celebrate the fact that Julian Assange won't be sent to the barbaric U.S. incarceration system even though he's still kept in a high security prison in England, which is scandalous."
While the verdict is positive on some levels, according to Chomsky, the academic said he suspects people in the Joe Biden administration will also be celebrating.
"This was a perfect outcome for the U.S. government," said Chomsky. "If I believed in conspiracy theories, I'd almost suspect it couldn't have turned out better. All the U.S. government charges, however spurious, were accepted by the judge. That means that the threat to press freedom, which is severe, is maintained, and in a way even strengthened."
He added: "The judge's decision says the charges were all perfect, but this guy, his mental health is so deteriorated that he can't face them. It's almost as if you relieve someone from a criminal charge by pleading insanity."