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U.K. Judge Cites Harsh Conditions At Indiana Facility In Ruling For WikiLeaks Founder

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The judge cited harsh conditions at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute.

A British judge on Monday rejected a U.S. request to extradite the founder of WikiLeaks, citing oppressive conditions at U.S. prison facilities including one in Indiana.

In her ruling, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser noted evaluations that Julian Assange could face unusually harsh confinement in either Indiana or Illinois if convicted. She wrote that isolating Assange would increase his risk of suicide.

“I find that the mental condition of Mr. Assange is such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the United States of America,” the judge said.

The judge specifically acknowledged conditions at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute in a section about Assange’s risk of being placed under a “special administrative measure.” Under some such measures, the government may monitor all inmate communications including attorney-client communication.

The judge wrote that “It is an agreed fact” that nine inmates were being held under “special administrative measure” in the U.S. Two are at Terre Haute.

READ MORE: Vaccine Delivered To Terre Haute Prison Where Feds Carry Out Executions

“He states that in CMU’s (communication management units) verbal communication between inmates is monitored, visitation privileges are severely limited and physical contact with visitors is completely banned,” the judge wrote in another section, citing defense attorney Joel Sickler.

The judge appeared to be more concerned that Assange would be sent to the Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colorado. It is the highest security prison in the U.S., also holding Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski and Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

She accepted evidence from expert witnesses that Assange had a depressive disorder and an autism spectrum disorder and wrote: “I am satisfied that, in these harsh conditions, Mr. Assange’s mental health would deteriorate, causing him to commit suicide with the single-minded determination of his autism spectrum disorder.”

She said Assange was “a depressed and sometimes despairing man” who had the “intellect and determination” to circumvent suicide prevention measures.

U.S. prosecutors have indicted Assange on 17 espionage charges and one charge of computer misuse over WikiLeaks’ publication of thousands of leaked military and diplomatic documents. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison.

Lawyers for Assange argue that he was acting as a journalist and is entitled to First Amendment protections for publishing documents that exposed U.S. military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Baraitser rejected defense arguments that the 49-year-old Australian faces a politically motivated American prosecution that rides roughshod over free-speech protections. But she said Assange’s precarious mental health would likely deteriorate further under the conditions of “near total isolation” he would face in a U.S. prison.

Assange’s American lawyer, Barry Pollack, said the legal team was “enormously gratified” by the British court’s decision.

“We hope that after consideration of the U.K. court’s ruling, the United States will decide not to pursue the case further,” he said.

Lawyers for the U.S. government said they would appeal the decision, and the U.S. Department of Justice said it would continue to seek Assange’s extradition.

“While we are extremely disappointed in the court’s ultimate decision, we are gratified that the United States prevailed on every point of law raised,” it said in a statement. “In particular, the court rejected all of Mr. Assange’s arguments regarding political motivation, political offense, fair trial and freedom of speech.”

Assange’s lawyers said they would ask at a bail hearing Wednesday for his release from a London prison where he has been held for more than 18 months. Britain’s extradition agreement with the U.S. says extradition can be blocked if “by reason of the person’s mental or physical condition, it would be unjust or oppressive to extradite him.”

The prosecution of Assange has been condemned by journalists and human rights groups, who say it undermines free speech and imperils journalists. They welcomed the judge’s decision, even though it was not made on free-speech grounds.

“This is a huge relief to anyone who cares about the rights of journalists,” The Freedom of the Press Foundation tweeted.

Assange’s legal troubles began in 2010, when he was arrested in London at the request of Sweden, which wanted to question him about allegations of rape and sexual assault made by two women. In 2012, Assange jumped bail and sought refuge inside the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he was beyond the reach of U.K. and Swedish authorities — but also effectively was a prisoner, unable to leave the tiny diplomatic space where he lived.

The relationship between Assange and his hosts eventually soured, and he was evicted from the embassy in April 2019. British police immediately arrested him for breaching bail in 2012. Sweden dropped the sex crimes investigations in November 2019 because so much time had elapsed, but Assange has remained in London’s high-security Belmarsh Prison throughout his extradition hearing.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

This story has been updated. 

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