A lawyer for Julian Assange told a British court Wednesday that the WikiLeaks founder is suffering from an autism disorder that could drive him to suicide were he extradited to the United States to face trial for publishing classified documents.
“This is someone suffering from a mental disorder who would find [extradition] unbearable because of his Asperger's,” said Edward Fitzgerald, a British barrister representing Assange during the opening day of a two-day hearing on the high-profile case. “And that’s a direct result of what he describes as rumination of his predicament, increasing his anxiety, worsening his condition of imprisonment, that would lead to his attempt of suicide being higher.”
The case before the British appellate court has taken on new urgency for Assange’s defenders in recent weeks, after a Yahoo News story disclosed that the CIA under its then director, Mike Pompeo, in 2017 developed plans to kidnap Assange from the Ecuadorean Embassy — and even discussed options for assassinating him — following WikiLeaks' publication of documents disclosing details of the agency’s highly sensitive “Vault 7” hacking tools.
In court papers filed with the court and released Wednesday, Assange’s lawyers cited the Yahoo News story as further grounds for the British courts to reject the U.S. government’s request for extradition. “In short, there is a large and cogent body of extraordinary and unprecedented evidence ... that the CIA has declared Mr Assange as a ‘hostile’ ‘enemy’ of the USA, one which poses ‘very real threats to our country’, and seeks to ‘revenge’ him with significant harm (beyond the fact of his prosecution),” his lawyers wrote.
In fact, as the Yahoo News story reported, neither the plans to abduct Assange nor the internal talk of assassinating him moved forward after senior lawyers at the Trump White House raised objections to some of Pompeo’s plans. But other aggressive measures targeting Assange and WikiLeaks were undertaken, including undercover surveillance of him inside the embassy and intercepting the communications of his associates. (While spokespersons for the CIA and other U.S. agencies have declined to comment on Yahoo News' reporting, Pompeo recently told Megyn Kelly's podcast that “pieces of it are true” but also that the sources who spoke to the news organization should be criminally prosecuted for disclosing classified information.)
Assange, currently incarcerated in a British prison, is facing a federal indictment accusing him of attempting to help one of his sources, former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, crack the password of a classified computer and of publishing multiple secret documents — including those revealing the names of sensitive sources for the U.S. government — in violation of the World War I-era Espionage Act.
But earlier this year, a British judge, Vanessa Baraitser, rejected a U.S. request to extradite Assange after concluding that he would be at serious risk of suicide if he were sent to the United States and placed in harsh prison conditions that would amount to solitary confinement while waiting to go to trial, and would be at even greater risk were he to be convicted. On Wednesday, a lawyer representing the United States argued to the British High Court that the judge’s ruling should be overturned because the Justice Department has recently provided new “assurances” that Assange would not be subjected to rigorous detention measures or, upon conviction, be sent to the department’s maximum security prison in Florence, Colo.
Instead, the Justice Department has asserted that he would be permitted to serve any prison term in his native Australia.
“There is no factual basis for believing that the U.S. will not abide by the assurances made in this case,” said James Lewis, the British lawyer representing the United States.
Lewis, who spoke for most of Wednesday’s hearing, argued that the new assurances lessen the chances that Assange would be at serious risk were he to be placed in pretrial detention in the U.S. or in prison upon conviction. He also argued that Baraitser depended too heavily on just one expert opinion, that of British psychiatrist Michael Kopelman, in reaching her conclusions, contending it was difficult or "almost impossible" to make predictions about how Assange would react to the terms of his confinement.
The hearing will continue on Thursday, when Assange’s lawyers will have more opportunity to respond to the U.S. government’s arguments.
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