Australian PM says Julian Assange is free to return home if the US fails in its extradition bid.
Julian Assange has been refused bail because he “has an incentive to abscond” and there is a good chance he would fail to return to court if freed, according to the judge who delivered the decision in London.
Wednesday’s ruling by District Judge Vanessa Baraitser at Westminster Magistrates Court means the WikiLeaks founder will continue to be held at the maximum-security Belmarsh prison in the UK capital.
Baraitser told the court: “I am satisfied that there are substantial grounds for believing that if Mr Assange is released today he will fail to surrender to the court to face the appellant proceedings.”
The decision marks a defeat for Assange’s legal team, which had been celebrating a ruling earlier this week against the United States’ attempt to extradite him. WikiLeaks said it would appeal against the denial of bail.
On Monday at the Old Bailey, Baraitser said if Assange were sent across the Atlantic to face 18 criminal charges of breaking an espionage law and conspiring to hack government computers, he would be at risk of suicide.
Assange, 49, an Australian citizen, has been jailed at Belmarsh since he was arrested at the Ecuadorian embassy in London in 2019 for breaching bail conditions in a separate extradition case involving Sweden.
There are growing fears for his mental and physical health.
As she outlined the ruling against the US extradition on Monday, Baraitser said Assange had made several calls to Samaritans, a suicide prevention charity, from jail.
The US government charges relate to the release by WikiLeaks of hundreds of thousands of confidential US military records and diplomatic cables nearly 10 years ago.
US officials say the leaked material, which exposed wrongdoing in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, put lives in danger, but Assange’s legal team says the case has been politicised.
Lawyers for the US government have appealed the decision not to extradite Assange, and the case will be heard by Britain’s High Court at an unspecified date.
Clair Dobbin, a British lawyer acting for the US, said in court on Wednesday Assange had shown he would go “to almost any length” to avoid extradition, and it was likely he would flee if granted bail.
She noted that Assange had spent seven years inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London after seeking refuge there from the Swedish extradition request in 2012.
Dobbin said Assange had the “resources, abilities and sheer wherewithal” to evade justice once again, and noted that Mexico has said it will offer him asylum.
Assange’s lawyer, Edward Fitzgerald, said the judge’s decision to refuse extradition “massively reduces” any motivation to abscond.
“Mr Assange has every reason to stay in this jurisdiction where he has the protection of the rule of law and this court’s decision,” he said.
Fitzgerald also said Assange would be safer at home with his partner Stella Moris and two young sons – fathered while he was in the embassy – than in prison, where there is “a very grave crisis of COVID”.
But the judge ruled that Assange still had a strong motive to flee.
“As far as Mr Assange is concerned, this case has not yet been won,” she said. “Mr Assange still has an incentive to abscond from these as yet unresolved proceedings.”
Moris criticised the decision to refuse Assange bail and called on US President Donald Trump to pardon him.
“This is a huge disappointment,” she told reporters outside the court. “Julian should not be in Belmarsh Prison in the first place. I urge the Department of Justice to drop the charges and the President of the United States to pardon Julian.”
Other supporters of Assange also expressed their regret over Wednesday’s ruling.
“I didn’t think I was still capable of disappointment in this case, but apparently I still am,” Rebecca Vincent, the director of international campaigns for Reporters Without Borders (RSF), said on Twitter.
I didn’t think I was still capable of disappointment in this case, but apparently I still am. This court cannot undo the past 10 years of hell Assange had endured, but the judge could have made it right going forward. She failed – again, unnecessarily cruelly. 18/
— Rebecca Vincent (@rebecca_vincent) January 6, 2021
Nils Muiznieks, Europe Director for Amnesty International, said the bail decision had rendered Assange’s ongoing detention “arbitrary”.
“Rather than finally going home with his loved ones and sleeping in his own bed for the first time in almost 10 years, Julian Assange will be driven back to his solitary cell in a high security prison,” Muiznieks said in a statement.
“The US government is behaving as if they have jurisdiction all over the world to pursue any person who receives and publishes information about government wrongdoing. Today’s decision seems intended to send a message that British justice will not stand in their way.”