A British judge has ruled that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should not be extradited to the US 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 US prison.
Many experts had expected District Judge Vanessa Baraitser to allow extradition in the high-profile case, but she said the defence had provided compelling evidence that Mr Assange (49) suffers from severe depression.
The court had heard Mr Assange has written a will, sought absolution from a priest and that a razor blade was found hidden in his cell at Belmarsh prison in London.
Judge Baraitser said she relied on testimony from psychiatrists called by the defence, who stressed that Mr Assange was planning to kill himself if ordered to face trial in the US.
"The overall impression is of a depressed and sometimes despairing man fearful for his future," Judge Baraitser said.
Mr Assange was at the rear of the courtroom, sitting in a glass booth, wearing a dark blue suit and a green surgical mask. He closed his eyes as he listened to the judge block his extradition.
His partner and mother of their two children, Stella Moris, wept as WikiLeaks editor in chief Kristinn Hrafnsson put an arm around her shoulders.
In her ruling, the judge said she had no doubt Mr Assange could have a fair trial with an impartial jury in the US.
Instead, she focused on the harsh conditions he could face if convicted.
She described America's supermax prison, the Administrative Maximum Facility or AMX, in Florence, Colorado, as a facility where inmates are kept in lockdown 23 hours a day with almost no human contact.
Mr Assange is charged with 18 federal crimes, including conspiring to obtain and disclose secret government documents, including sensitive military reports from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which were released through the WikiLeaks website, as well as to journalists.
Prosecutors want Mr Assange flown by US marshals to Northern Virginia to face the charges, which expose him to 175 years in a maximum-security prison.
The US government will appeal to the British High Court to reverse the judge's ruling, a process that could take several months, perhaps even longer because of Mr Assange's poor health and the soaring outbreak of coronavirus in Britain.
As the extradition case has been long and complex, the High Court will probably agree to hear the appeal, said Nick Vamos, former head of the extradition unit at the Crown Prosecution Service and partner at Peters & Peters law firm.
Mr Assange was returned to Belmarsh prison yesterday. He will seek release on bail.
His lawyer, Edward Fitzgerald, said the defence will submit new evidence tomorrow to counter a previous ruling that Mr Assange is a flight risk.
Mr Vamos said that if the US government loses its appeal in the High Court, it can pursue a final appeal to Britain's Supreme Court.
In a series of hearings over the past year, Mr Assange's lawyers argued that the Trump administration is targeting him for "purely political" reasons.