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British judge denies WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange bail in extradition case, citing flight risk

Stella Moris, partner of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, center; editor in chief of WikiLeaks Kristinn Hrafnsson, left; and WikiLeaks Ambassador Joseph Farrell arrive at the Westminster Magistrates’ Court in London ahead of a hearing on Wednesday. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

LONDON — A British judge on Wednesday refused to grant bail and release WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who will remain in a prison cell on the outskirts of London while the U.S. government pursues its case against him.

On Monday, the same magistrate, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser, ruled that Assange should not be extradited to the United States to face charges of violating the Espionage Act, because he is at extreme risk of suicide and might not be protected from harming himself in a U.S. prison.

Assange — who has been held at London’s Belmarsh prison since the Ecuadoran Embassy revoked his political asylum two years ago — was in the courtroom for the bail hearing, but was not shown on cameras providing a video link to reporters and observers, so his reaction to the setback was not seen.

British court rejects U.S. extradition request for WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange, saying he is at risk of suicide

Assange is charged with 18 federal crimes, including conspiring to obtain and disclose classified diplomatic cables and sensitive military reports from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lawyers for the U.S. government said they will appeal to Britain’s High Court the judge’s ruling to halt the extradition, a process that could take several months. Prosecutors want Assange flown to Northern Virginia to face the charges, which could lead to a life sentence in a maximum-security prison if he were convicted.

But a change in administrations in Washington might alter the course.

The lead prosecutor in the case, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, G. Zachary Terwilliger, announced his resignation on Tuesday. He was appointed by President Trump.

Terwilliger appeared to raise doubts about the government’s zeal to continue to pursue Assange, telling NPR, “it will be very interesting to see what happens with this case. There’ll be some decisions to be made. Some of this does come down to resources and where you’re going to focus your energies.”

On Wednesday, the Justice Department responded positively to the bail ruling.

“We are pleased with the court’s decision,” said Justice Department spokesman Marc Raimondi.

In the bail hearing, Assange’s attorney, Edward Fitzgerald, argued that his client was no longer a flight risk and that he would remain in London, closely monitored and under house arrest, to continue to mount his legal defense against the U.S. charges and request to have him extradited.

Fitzgerald said that conditions at Belmarsh prison undermine Assange’s fragile mental health. Experts previously testified that Assange suffers from severe depression, Asperger’s syndrome and suicidal thoughts. Fitzgerald also argued that prison life exposes him to infection by the coronavirus.

If he were freed, Fitzgerald said Assange would live in a house in London with his fiancee, Stella Moris, and the couple’s two young sons. Moris is also Assange’s former lawyer, and the two kept their relationship a secret until recently.

Outside the courtroom, Moris told reporters, “This is a huge disappointment. Julian should not be in Belmarsh prison in the first place. I urge the Department of Justice to drop the charges and the president of the United States to pardon Julian.”

In her ruling from the bench denying Assange’s bid for freedom, the judge recited some history, noting that Assange was granted bail by a British court in 2010 as he fought extradition to Sweden, where he was wanted for sexual assault. The Swedish case was later dropped.

The judge recalled how in June 2012 Assange fled from British justice and sought refuge in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London, which granted him asylum.

Assange spent almost seven years as a fugitive in the embassy, until Ecuador revoked his protection and British police arrested him in April 2019. Since then, he has been in Belmarsh.

Baraitser said that for Assange, “this case has not yet been won. The outcome of this appeal is not yet known. Mr. Assange still has an incentive to abscond.”

She added that Assange has “a huge support network available if he again chooses to go to ground,” and she mentioned whistleblower Edward Snowden’s flight to Russia after the former National Security Agency contractor leaked documents about secret surveillance programs.

Devlin Barrett in Washington contributed to this report.

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