UK court to hear bail plea for WikiLeaks’ Assange

London(AFP): Lawyers for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will on Wednesday argue he should be released from a British prison on bail, pending Washington’s appeal against a decision not to extradite him to the United States.

A judge in London on Monday blocked his extradition to face charges for publishing hundreds of thousands of secret documents online, assessing he was a high suicide risk if transferred.

The United States, which called the ruling “extremely disappointing”, has said it will appeal, and has two weeks to lodge its grounds.

Assange has remained in the high-security Belmarsh prison in southeast London pending the latest hearing, at Westminster Magistrates’ Court in central London.

The 49-year-old Australian publisher’s long-running legal woes have become a cause celebre for media freedom, despite the judge’s view he had a case to answer in the United States.

A previous bail hearing in March was told he should be released because he was vulnerable to Covid-19 while behind bars. But the argument was rejected on the grounds he was likely to abscond.

He was arrested in 2019 after seeking sanctuary at Ecuador’s embassy in London in 2012 following Sweden’s issuing of an arrest warrant in connection with sexual assault allegations.

British police dragged Assange out of the embassy in April 2019 after Ecuador revoked his citizenship.

He was arrested for breaching his bail terms in connection with the Swedish case, which was later dropped due to lack of evidence, and sentenced to 50 weeks, which the UN called “disproportionate”.

He has remained at Belmarsh pending the conclusion of the American extradition request.

– ‘Oppressive’ extradition –

Assange is still wanted on 18 charges in the US — bearing a maximum 175-year sentence — relating to the 2010 release by WikiLeaks of 500,000 secret files detailing aspects of military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Washington claims he helped intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning steal the 2010 documents before exposing confidential sources around the world.

Assange and his lawyers have long argued that the protracted case is politically motivated.

District Judge Vanessa Baraitser on Monday said Assange would have been “well aware” of the effects of his leaking of secret documents, and his actions went “well beyond” the role of a journalist.

But she said his mental health would probably deteriorate in the US penal system “causing him to commit suicide”.

She rejected US experts’ testimony that Assange would be protected from self-harm, noting that others such as disgraced US financier Jeffrey Epstein had managed to kill themselves in custody despite supervision.

“For this reason I have decided extradition would be oppressive by reason of mental harm and I order his discharge,” she said.

UN rapporteur on torture Nils Melzer welcomed the blocking of Assange’s extradition but added he was concerned “the judgement confirms the entire, very dangerous rationale underlying the US indictment,” which he said “effectively amounts to criminalising national security journalism”.

“Mr. Assange must now be immediately set free, rehabilitated and compensated for the abuse and arbitrariness he has been exposed to,” the UN expert added.

Following the ruling, Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador offered Assange political asylum.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Tuesday that Assange was “free to return home” to Australia once the legal cases against him had concluded.

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