“This wasn’t a victory for press freedom, but an indictment of the insanely oppressive US prison system,” said American journalist Glenn Greenwald in reaction to a British judge denying Washington’s extradition request of WikiLeaks founding member Julian Assange on medical grounds.
In a surprise ruling on Monday, Judge Vanessa Baraitser refused to extradite Assange to the US, on the grounds that inhumane conditions in an American prison could drive him to suicide.
Judge Baraitser’s decision was loudly cheered online by free speech activists, while outside the Old Bailey in London, Assange’s jubilant supporters celebrated as he was spared the ordeal of the American prison system.
Assange, 49, is charged in the US with 18 counts of conspiring to hack US government computers and the publication of confidential military records, including a video of a 2007 US Apache helicopter attack in Baghdad. A dozen people, including two Reuters journalists, were killed in that strike.
Former National Security Agency (NSA) operative-turned-whistleblower, Edward Snowden, who has also been charged with espionage for revealing the agency’s massive domestic spying operation, tweeted, “Let this be the end of it.” He has since been granted asylum in Russia.
‘System is spitting him out‘
Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur who monitors torture and other forms of inhuman treatment around the world, said the court’s refusal to extradite Assange to the US on medical grounds is a “blow to journalism” since the judge has sided with the US in its justification for prosecuting him.
“I am extremely happy for Julian Assange as a person. But he should not have been brought to a point where he is suicidal… Now the system is spitting him out … In a sense, the system has succeeded in intimidating the world and passing the message,” said Melzer.
“This is what is going to happen to you if ever you have the idea of publishing our dirty secrets.”
“Julian Assange has been brought to the breaking point by 10 years of joint prosecution for political reasons by Sweden, by the United Kingdom, by the US, by Ecuador. And none of this is being addressed in the court ruling.”
‘We’ll give him protection’
From England to Mexico to Assange’s native Australia, supporters rejoiced… “Julian is free.”
Mexico’s government said it’s ready to offer political asylum to Assange, saying he “deserves a second chance.”
Journalist and filmmaker John Pilger – a vocal advocate for the Free-Assange campaign – agreed with Melzer, describing Baraitser’s focus on the ‘suicide risk,’ rather than Assange’s right to publish incriminating information, a “face-saving cover” by British authorities to “justify their disgraceful political trial.”
Baraitser did not question the legitimacy of the litany of charges leveled against Assange, and even asserted that freedom-of-speech rights do not provide “unfettered discretion” to publish as one sees fit.
A number of prominent pundits and activists echoed Pilger’s sentiment, with journalist Glenn Greenwald declaring that “this wasn’t a victory for press freedom,” but “an indictment of the insanely oppressive US prison system.”
Still, the chance that Assange may soon be free was in itself cause for celebration.
Figures on all sides of the political spectrum joined in, with Labour Party MP Diane Abbott, contrarian pundit Peter Hitchens, and former MP George Galloway among those applauding.
Former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn tweeted that “extradition would be an attack on press freedom.”
Assange’s legal team has said the US will likely appeal Baraitser’s verdict in London’s High Court, with the possibility it may be taken as far as the UK’s Supreme Court.
Following the verdict, Assange returned to Belmarsh Prison, to await a bail hearing on Wednesday.
In the US, Assange’s supporters pressed President Donald Trump to pardon the WikiLeaks man.
Trump has given no indication thus far that he will.
Assange’s fiancée, Stella Moris, summed up the mood, but urged supporters to keep up the pressure until her partner was free.
“Today is a victory for Julian. Today’s victory is a first step towards justice in this case.“