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Assange spared extradition but press freedom remains under threat

SUPPORTERS of Julian Assange celebrated victory today after the Wikileaks founder was spared extradition to the United States on health grounds — but warned that press freedom remains under threat.

At the Old Bailey in central London, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled that the US could not extradite the Wikileaks founder to stand trial on criminal charges of hacking, conspiracy and violations of the Espionage Act.

She found that Mr Assange would face unacceptably oppressive conditions in a US jail and may kill himself if put in near-total isolation.

But the judge rejected arguments from the defence that the extradition should be halted in order to protect freedom of speech and on the basis that the prosecution was politically motivated.

Supporters of Mr Assange warned that elements of the ruling leave other journalists at risk of similar indictments for publishing evidence on government corruption, war crimes and other misconduct.

Following the verdict, the US immediately gave notice that it will appeal the decision. It has two weeks to lodge grounds.

Mr Assange’s partner Stella Moris declared the ruling a “victory for Julian” and the “first step towards justice in this case,” but said that she was “extremely concerned” by the move to appeal.

“[The US government] continues to want to punish Julian and make him disappear into the deepest, darkest hole of the US prison system for the rest of his life,” she said outside the court.

“That will never happen. We will never accept that journalism is a crime in this country, or any other.”

Mr Assange was remanded in Belmarsh Prison before a bail hearing tomorrow.

He is wanted in the US to face an 18-count indictment over the publication of hundreds of thousands of leaked documents in 2010 and 2011 relating to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

His defence team argued that the prosecution is political and that sending Mr Assange for trial would violate his right to freedom of speech.

But the judge rejected this, concluding that she could trust the US courts to give Mr Assange a fair trial and that his alleged activities go beyond the realms of journalism.

Instead, her decision was based only on Mr Assange’s mental health.

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) said the judgment was troubling.

General secretary Michelle Stanistreet said: “The judge rejected the defence case that the charges against Assange related to actions identical to those undertaken daily by most investigative journalists.

“In doing so, she leaves open the door for a future US administration to confect a similar indictment against a journalist.”

Reporters Without Borders director of international campaigns Rebecca Vincent, who attended the hearing, said she disagreed with the judge’s assessment.

“We continue to believe that Mr Assange was targeted for his contributions to journalism and until the underlying issues here are addressed, other journalists, sources and publishers remain at risk,” she said.

UN special rapporteur on torture Nils Melzer said the judgment “goes very far in confirming the entire, very dangerous rationale underlying the US indictment against Assange, which effectively amounts to criminalising national-security journalism.”

Mr Melzer hoped that the judgment would put an end to the prosecution of Mr Assange but said that it “fails to provide recognition, justice and compensation for the enormous harm and injustice done to him” by the US, Britain, Sweden and Ecuador.

He warned that the judgment “leaves fully intact the intended intimidating effect on journalists and whistleblowers around the world who may be tempted to publish secret evidence for serious government misconduct.”

A medical report by Mr Melzer previously found that Mr Assange had been subjected to “deliberate and concerted abuse inflicted for years” and that this treatment amounted to psychological torture.

Amnesty International directed blame at the British government for its role in the persecution of Mr Assange, accusing ministers of “setting a terrible precedent.”

The group’s Europe director Nils Muiznieks said: “The fact that the ruling is correct and saves Assange from extradition does not absolve the UK from having engaged in this politically motivated process at the behest of the USA and putting media freedom and freedom of expression on trial.”

Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn welcomed the refusal to extradite Mr Assange and called for his immediate release. 

“There remains much at stake in his case, which is being observed by so many around the world,” he said.

Communist Party general secretary Robert Griffiths said: “Any appeal against the extradition ban should be treated with the contempt it deserves and Assange should be released from prison immediately.”

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