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Assange still in prison pending US appeal

THE request to extradite Julian Assange to the US to face multiple charges under the Espionage Act in relation to WikiLeaks disclosures has been denied. Assange, however, remains in Belmarsh maximum security prison while the lawyers for the US Government prepare their appeal against the court's ruling against extraditing him.

Barriers outside the High Court

A barrier outside the High Court for the Assange extradition judgment in January

See here for background to the case, and see a report from Tim Dawson, the NUJ's observer for both the extradition hearing and earlier preliminary hearings.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his history of skipping bail, Assange was denied bail while awaiting the outcome of the appeal. He is in visibly poor health in a prison currently experiencing a covid-19 outbreak. In the event that the appeal by the US drags on for many months, though, bail for Assange is seen as becoming a possibility.

The US Government's lawyers in the UK filed papers with the High Court in London on 15 January to appeal the judgment - just days before the Trump Administration that had brought the extradition request ended and the Biden Administration took over. No date for the appeal has yet been made known.

Ben Keith, a barrister specialising in extradition cases, told The Times that the grounds on which District Judge Venessa Baraitser denied the request to extradite - that of high suicide risk to Assange - make it unlikely that the US's appeal will succeed, as the test of a suicide risk is "a very high one".

There has been no word yet from the Biden Administration on whether its lawyers will pursue the case brought by the previous Administration.

Biden was Vice President to Barack Obama, who made a point of not pressing for extradition of Assange during his two terms, while a departing President Obama granted Chelsea Manning - Assange's source - early release. Biden while still President Elect admonished those around him who argued (before the January insurrection and storming of the Capitol) for dropping of investigations of Trump and his family as part of a process of "moving on". Biden appeared then to express the opinion that an independent judiciary should bring cases (or not) based on their legal merit alone, not for political reasons, which may bode well for a case so politically-motivated as Assange's.

The denial of Assange's extradition should not be regarded as signalling a great day for the freedom of the press and public interest journalism, though. On the contrary.

Worryingly, Judge Baraitser rejected all the defence's arguments about the freedom of the press, public interest journalism and political motives for bringing the case. Her judgment was based purely on the Court's view of Assange's physical and mental health and well-being and a high suicide risk were he to be extradited. Nothing about the judgment sets any kind of precedent that would help support press freedom in the future.

As NUJ General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet noted, "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."