The United States sought to assure a British court Wednesday that Julian Assange would not be held at a federal supermax prison, as it appealed a decision to block his extradition on the grounds he is a serious suicide threat.
The WikiLeaks founder faces espionage charges and up to 175 years in jail if he is sent to the United States and convicted.
At the start of a two-day hearing in London on Wednesday, the US government asked Britain’s High Court to overturn a January ruling blocking his extradition to the US.
The initial judgment was partly based on concerns Assange was likely to be held in isolation in the US’s only federal so-called supermax prison, the ADX Florence jail in Colorado.
James Lewis, lawyer for the US government, told the court that Assange would not be held either before or after his trial at the notorious prison.
He also said Assange “will receive any such clinical and psychological treatment as is recommended” and that he will eventually be eligible to apply for a prisoner transfer to his native Australia.
“There has never been a previous breach of an assurance,” Lewis argued.
However, Assange’s team responded in legal filings that the assurances did not rule out altogether the chance of him being detained at the facility, at a “comparable” federal prison or a state-level supermax jail.
The two senior judges sitting on the High Court will deliver their own ruling at a later date, but the legal fight is likely to drag on for months if not years.
‘End this nightmare’
Outside the court in central London, Assange’s partner Stella Moris — with whom he has two children — joined two dozen protesters demanding his immediate release from London’s high-security Belmarsh jail.
“I’m very concerned for Julian’s health,” Moris told reporters, after visiting Assange in the prison on Saturday.
“He is very thin. And I hope that the courts will end this nightmare,” she said.
One demonstrator dressed in black and a funereal veil held a banner reading “RIP British Justice”. Another, 20-year-old Ruby Allen, said Assange was an innocent defender of “press freedom”.
“Extradition is a death sentence basically. If he’s extradited to America the conditions will be so much worse,” she said.
Assange, 50, is wanted in Washington to face 18 charges relating to the 2010 release by WikiLeaks of 500,000 secret files detailing aspects of military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.
He has been indicted for violating the US espionage act and for hacking, based on the alleged aid he gave former military intelligence officer Chelsea Manning in obtaining the documents from secure computer systems.
If convicted in the United States, he faces a maximum sentence of 175 years in jail.
The US government has said the judge who made the ruling in January, Vanessa Baraitser, “didn’t appreciate the weight” of expert evidence that said Assange was not at risk of suicide.
Baraitser rejected US experts’ testimony that Assange would be protected from self-harm, noting that others such as disgraced US financier Jeffrey Epstein had managed to kill themselves in US custody.
But the US government’s lawyers have argued Baraitser was “misled” in evidence from Assange’s psychiatric expert Michael Kopelman, who they claim concealed things such as that his client had fathered children with Moris while holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
Assange was arrested in Britain in 2019 for jumping bail after spending seven years inside the embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden where he faced allegations of sexual assault. These were later dropped.
Whatever the High Court decides, further lengthy legal wrangling looms.
If the US appeal is successful, the case will be sent back to a lower court for a new decision.
Whoever loses can also ask for permission for a further, final appeal to the UK’s Supreme Court.
Assange sought, but failed, to obtain a pardon from Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump, whose 2016 election campaign benefited from WikiLeaks’ release of materials that damaged his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.