LONDON (AP) — Promises by the U.S. government that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange would not be subjected to harsh prison conditions if he is extradited to face American justice are not enough to address concerns about his fragile mental health and high risk of suicide, a lawyer defending him argued Thursday.
Assange’s lawyer, Edward Fitzgerald, said during a two-day hearing at Britain's High Court that the Australian was too mentally ill to be extradited to the United States to face trial on espionage charges.
The United States government is seeking to overturn an earlier ruling by a lower British court that refused a U.S. request to extradite Assange over WikiLeaks’ publication of secret American military documents a decade ago. District Judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled that Assange was likely to kill himself if held under harsh U.S. prison conditions.
On Wednesday, a lawyer for the U.S. government said that American authorities have promised that Assange would not be held before trial in a top-security “Supermax” prison, or subjected to strict isolation conditions. He also said that if convicted, Assange would be allowed to serve his sentence in Australia, his home country.
But Fitzgerald argued that the U.S. assurances were all “caveated, vague, or simply ineffective.” They do not remove the risk of Assange being detained in extreme isolation in the U.S. in the long term, he said, and the risk of Assange killing himself remained substantial if he is extradited.
“It is perfectly reasonable to find it oppressive to extradite a mentally disordered person because his extradition is likely to result in his death,” he said. He added that judges should use their power to “protect people from extradition to a foreign state where we have no control over what will be done to them."
In a written submission, Fitzgerald also said that the assurance that Assange could be transferred to an Australian prison if convicted is “meaningless." Australia has not indicated its consent, and the process could take a decade or more, he argued.
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, though a lawyer for the U.S. government said Wednesday the sentence could be much shorter.
Assange, 50, is currently being held at London’s high-security Belmarsh Prison. He did not attend the hearing Thursday, although on Wednesday he appeared by video link at times.