LONDON/MEXICO CITY (BLOOMBERG) - The UK's decision to block Julian Assange's extradition to the US is unlikely to make him a free man anytime soon.
Assange, who has spent the last decade either in a UK prison or stuck in Ecuador's embassy in London, won an important legal fight Monday (Jan 4) when a judge ruled that he shouldn't be sent to the US to face criminal charges.
While his legal team prepares for a bail hearing Wednesday, prosecutors said they will fight his release as they appeal the decision, dragging the process through the British courts for months or years.
This "is not the end of the story," said Jasvinder Nakhwal, an extradition lawyer at Peters & Peters in London who wasn't involved in Assange's hearing.
The 49-year-old initially took shelter in the Ecuadorian embassy in 2012 after he lost a UK Supreme Court appeal of his extradition to Sweden for questioning on rape allegations. While the Swedish case was later dropped, Assange was booted out of the embassy in April 2019 and arrested for skipping his UK bail. That same day, the US announced it was charging him with espionage for his role in releasing hundreds of thousands of pages of classified documents via WikiLeaks, with the help of US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. He is being held in London's Belmarsh prison.
"'He has a very poor history,' that's all prosecutors need to say," extradition lawyer Daniel Sternberg said, referring to Assange's breach of earlier bails. "Prison authorities would consider him to be a flight risk. He's likely to be in Belmarsh for the time being."
The decision by London Judge Vanessa Baraitser - based on fears that he might commit suicide in a US jail - came as a surprise to most. In the weeks before the hearing, his supporters put more faith in a presidential pardon than on winning the case. Even Assange's fiancee, Stella Moris, said she had to re-write her speech in light of the decision.
Moris has spent the last few months making direct pleas for clemency to President Donald Trump via Twitter and appearances on Fox News.
US Appeal "As long as Julian has to endure suffering and isolation as an unconvicted prisoner in Belmarsh Prison and as long as our children continue to be bereft of their father's love and affection we cannot celebrate," Moris said outside London's Old Bailey court building after the ruling.
"We will celebrate the day he comes home."
US prosecutors said they will appeal. In a statement, the US Justice Department pointed to Baraitser's opinion, which backed much of their case and rejected Assange lawyers' arguments regarding fair trial and freedom of speech. The judge also said that there was insufficient evidence to support the allegation that prosecutors were pressured into bringing charges by Trump's administration.
It's unclear whether US President-Elect Joe Biden will pursue the case. His transition team declined to comment on whether the Democrat's administration would continue to pressure for Assange's transfer. At the end of his term, President Barack Obama commuted Manning's 35-year prison sentence.
Biden called Assange a "high-tech terrorist" in 2010, saying he shouldn't get protection provided to journalists because he encouraged Manning to release the information.
The US has 14 days to appeal, and the process will likely take months, particularly given the current backlog of cases caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Even if they lose again, they could also make an application to the British Supreme Court, which will further elongate the process.
It may be a tall order for the judge to allow him bail Wednesday while the appeal process continues. Even if he's granted bail, however unlikely, there will probably be very strict conditions attached and the ruling could itself immediately be appealed.
"In this particular case, I'd be surprised if the judge granted him bail," said Sternberg, an extradition lawyer who doesn't represent anyone in the case and who has worked for and against the US government in court.
The Australian has applied for bail several times, including on health grounds, saying that the crowded conditions increased his risk of contacting Covid-19.
Baraitser cited Assange's health in her decision.
She said that Assange would face "conditions of significant isolation" in US prison, and cited Jeffrey Epstein's 2019 death as an example of when preventative measures weren't able to protect inmates from self-harm.
"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," Baraitser said.
Whatever happens Wednesday, Assange continues to garner support. Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador celebrated the British ruling, and said his administration would offer him political asylum.
"Assange is a journalist and he deserves an opportunity," Lopez Obrador said in his daily press conference.
"I'm in favour of pardoning him. We'll give him protection."