UK court allows US appeal on Assange’s extradition on limited grounds

Prosecutors said judge Vanessa Baraitser erred in determining what could be “oppressive conditions” in case Assange is extradited. They claimed she did not give the US enough opportunity to give “assurances” over her concerns about harsh prison conditions

July 09, 2021 by Peoples Dispatch

A British court has allowed the US appeal for the extradition of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. On Wednesday, June 7, the High Court of Justice in London granted permission to the United States to appeal against a lower court’s ruling on the extradition on “limited grounds”. The appeal would be against the decision made by a judge in the Westminster Magistrates’ Court in January, rejecting Assange’s extradition on the grounds of his deteriorating health.

The Crown Prosecution Service, representing the US, challenged judge Vanessa Baraitser’s order on two counts. They argued that the judge made an error in determining what could be “oppressive conditions” in case Assange is extradited. They stated that the judge did not give the US government enough opportunity to give “assurances” over her concerns about the harsh prison conditions. They also challenged the testimony of an expert witness presented by the witness, psychiatrist Michael Kopelman, whose assessment that Assange is a suicide risk once extradition becomes imminent, was crucial in the judgement.

Responding to the claims, Assange’s defense team stated that the prosecutors and the US had every opportunity to offer such an assurance [regarding prison conditions] at the extradition hearing but did not do so. The defense said the challenge to the judge’s decision on the psychiatrist failed to consider the “entitlement of the primary decision maker” (Baraitser) based on evidence submitted by both the defense and the prosecution.

The High Court appears to have dismissed the prosecution’s claim on the judge’s decision on Assange’s mental health but accepted its argument on prison conditions and permitted the appeal on those limited grounds.

In January, judge Baraitser had rejected the US government’s extradition plea, finding that the state of Assange’s mental health “is such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the United States of America.” Despite the verdict against extradition, Baraitser continued his imprisonment in the high security jail at Belmarsh, near London, without any charges, on the grounds that he is a “flight risk”.

The decision to sanction the appeal against the Baraitser verdict comes at a time when social movements and press freedoms advocates, along with Assange’s family and colleagues, have been pushing for the Biden administration to drop all charges against him. The US is currently indicting 50-year-old Assange on 18 charges under the Espionage Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which together carry a maximum prison sentence of 175 years.

In the meanwhile, last month in June, a key witness in the second expanded indictment against Assange, admitted to having lied in testimony. Siggi Thordarson, a convicted hacker from Iceland, told a local magazine that he falsely claimed to have conducted hacking at the behest of Assange in 2010 and 2011.

Assange’s partner Stella Moris expressed her disappointment at both the US decision to continue the extradition appeal and the British court’s decision to allow it, calling the case the “most vicious attack on global press freedom in history.”

“The U.S. government should have accepted the magistrates’ court’s decision. Instead, it keeps this case going,” said Moris to media persons outside the High Court building.

Moris also pointed out Thordarson’s admission of falsifying his testimony and the fact that the prosecutors and the Department of Justice in the US are yet to remove it as part of the evidence. “(US attorney general) Merrick Garland has egg on his face because of the decision to use a witness that perjured himself in order to try to imprison Julian and keep him imprisoned.”

Moris also questioned Assange’s continued imprisonment. “It’s a daily struggle. He won his case in January. Why is he even in prison? Why is he even being prosecuted? There is no legal case against him,” she contended.

Rebecca Vincent, director of international campaigns of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reiterated that Assange is being “targeted for his contributions to public interest reporting”, and echoed the long standing demand to the administration of US president Joe Biden to “drop the appeal and close the case, and for the UK to immediately release Assange from prison, where his mental and physical health remain at high risk.”

With inputs from The Dissenter