A British judge has ruled that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should not be extradited to the United States to confront espionage charges, citing concerns about his mental health and the prison conditions he could face there.
Judge Vanessa Baraitser delivered her verdict at London's Old Bailey court on Monday, saying she was alarmed by the effect incarceration in Britain's Belmarsh prison has had on the 49-year-old Australian activist's mental health.
She feared that the harsh confinement Assange potentially faces in the US while awaiting trial could worsen his health and lead to 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 US 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 told the court, according to Britain's Press Association.
The US government now has 14 days to lodge an appeal. If the appeal is successful, the case could be heard at the British Supreme Court and European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.
Not freed from prison
The decision by the District Judge does not mean Assange can be automatically freed from prison. A decision on Assange's bail conditions is due to be made on Wednesday.
Assange, wearing a suit a blue scarf, wiped his brow following the verdict while his partner and mother of his two children, Stella Moris, wept in court, the Press Association reported.
Whistleblower Edward Snowden was pleased with the result and gave thanks to Assange's supporters.
"Thank you to everyone who campaigned against one of the most dangerous threats to press freedom in decades," he wrote on Twitter.
Washington has charged Assange with violating the Espionage Act by conspiring with former US military intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to leak a trove of classified material in 2010 relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The secret documents were released on Wikileaks while Assange also collaborated with journalists at prominent news outlets.
His supporters and press freedom groups view him as an investigative reporter who has brought war crimes to light.
In 2010, Sweden announced that its officers were investigating two accusations of sexual assault against Assange, which he denied and said were without merit.
After an international arrest warrant was issued, Assange launched a legal battle against extradition to Sweden. After that failed, he sought refuge in London's Ecuadorian embassy in 2012, stating he believed it would eventually lead to an extradition to the US.
Sweden dropped its investigation in 2017. In April 2019, Assange's asylum status was revoked, prompting British police to arrest him for breaching his bail conditions in 2012.