Fifteen long months have passed since Julian Assange was physically pulled out of London's Ecuadorean embassy and taken to the United Kingdom's Belmarsh prison. There, he's since awaited an even grimmer prospect: extradition to the US to face charges of a criminal hacking conspiracy and violations of the Espionage Act. Now his lawyers have laid out a preview of their full case against that extradition—from the argument that the charges pose an unprecedented threat to press freedom to what his doctors describe as evidence that Assange is at high risk of self-harm if he ends up incarcerated in America.
Ahead of Assange's extradition hearing, which began in London today and is expected to last for several weeks, both prosecutors and the WikiLeaks founder's defense lawyers submitted "skeleton arguments" to the court that lay out in new detail the central arguments they plan to make in Assange's extradition case. The defense document in particular reveals Assange's most complete response yet to the US indictments against him, expanding on an opening statement his attorneys released in February and including snippets of still unpublished written testimony from a long list of witnesses, from free speech advocates and media scholars to four doctors who have assessed Assange's mental health. Assange's lawyers point to what they describe as flaws in the US indictment against their client and the political nature of the prosecution. The document also includes the warnings of psychiatrists who have diagnosed Assange with Asperger's, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, all of which they say could lead him to harm himself if he's extradited into the American judicial system.
"I think they have a lot of ammunition," says Tor Ekeland, a well-known hacker defense attorney who has followed Assange's case and helped to successfully defend British hacker Lauri Love from extradition in 2018. "The most salient things for me are the freedom of speech and the right to publish information that is critical to the public’s ability to understand and evaluate what the government is doing in their name."
On top of those free speech arguments, the newest details in the defense's argument serve as evidence of Assange's declining mental health. Michael Kopelman, a psychiatrist who interviewed Assange several times last year, testified that he observed in Assange signs of suicidal risk including "loss of sleep, loss of weight, a sense of pre-occupation and helplessness as a result of threats to his life, the concealment of a razor blade as a means to self-harm and obsessive ruminations on ways of killing himself." He writes at one point that Assange expressed having suicidal thoughts "hundreds" of times a day, and that multiple potential suicide implements were confiscated from Assange in prison.
The defense goes on to quote Kopelman pointing out that the WikiLeaks founder has shown signs of preparing for the end of his life, such as seeking Catholic absolution and creating a will. “I reiterate again that I am as certain as a psychiatrist ever can be that, in the event of imminent extradition, Mr. Assange would indeed find a way to commit suicide,” Kopelman writes. Sondra Crosby, another psychiatrist who saw Assange during his time in the Ecuadorean embassy adds, “It is my strong medical opinion that extradition of Mr. Assange to the United States will further damage his current fragile state of health and very likely cause his death. This opinion is not given lightly.”
A third psychiatrist diagnosed Assange with Asperger's syndrome, noting that the condition would make it more difficult for him to manage life in a US prison. But the prosecutors counter that yet another doctor who interviewed Assange twice while in prison came to the conclusion that he was not a significant suicide risk. The prosecution writes that "neither mental health problems, nor Asperger syndrome prevented Assange’s solicitation of, and orchestration of, the leaking of materials from the highest levels of government and state agencies, apparently on a global scale."
Much of the defense's case—including many of the arguments it revealed in the initial February hearings—focuses on the political nature of the charges. Assange's lawyers point out that "political offenses" aren't subject to extradition in the US-UK extradition treaty, and they argue that his prosecution is "being pursued for ulterior political motives and not in good faith." The Espionage Act charge against Assange, which alleges that he illegally released classified documents, is by its nature a political offense that falls outside the extradition conditions, the defense argues. To emphasize the politicized nature of the case, they reference President Trump's years-long war with the press, referring to the media as "the opposition party," and "the enemy of the people." They raise then-CIA director Mike Pompeo's statement in April 2017 that he saw Assange and WikiLeaks as "a non-state hostile intelligence agency."
That interpretation broke with that of the Obama administration, which considered prosecuting Assange under the Espionage Act in 2013 but chose not to, since doing so would violate a long precedent of not prosecuting news outlets for publishing classified information they obtain from sources.
"The indictment breaks all legal precedents. No publisher has ever been prosecuted for disclosing national secrets since the founding of the nation more than two centuries ago," wrote journalism professor Mark Feldstein in his testimony on behalf of the defense. "The belated decision to disregard this 230-year-old precedent and charge Assange criminally for espionage was not an evidentiary decision but a political one."
The defense's arguments also seek to undermine the hacking case against Assange, which alleges that he conspired with former army private Chelsea Manning and others to steal classified information. That original hacking charge, the basis of the first indictment unsealed against Assange in April of last year, relied on the fact that Assange offered in chats with Manning to help her crack a hashed password—thereby involving himself in Manning's theft of secret information from the military. But the defense points out that testimony in Manning's own court martial was inconclusive as to whether Assange had ever actually cracked the password, or whether he would have been able to with the information Manning provided, or what purpose the password would be used for if it were successfully cracked.
In June, prosecutors hit Assange with a superseding indictment that added allegations of conspiring with hackers who provided stolen information to WikiLeaks, including Anonymous hackers Jeremy Hammond and Hector Monsegur, as well as Icelandic WikiLeaker Sigurdur Thordarsson. The defense argues that those new elements serve only as "background narrative" of a hacking conspiracy, and "absent proof of the Manning allegations the new additional conduct could not sustain, of itself, conviction."
Moreover, the surprise introduction of a new indictment after the extradition case had already begun in February is highly unorthodox, says Tor Ekeland. It may even signal to the UK court that the US Department of Justice will pile on more charges after it already has Assange in hand, he says. Defense attorneys for Assange in a hearing Monday unsuccessfully sought to have the new elements of the indictment disregarded in the extradition case, given that they had little time to prepare counterarguments. "It’s an offense to the rule of law," says Ekeland. "It shows that the US cannot be trusted not to supersede the indictment again if Assange is extradited."
Ekeland argues that Assange's defense still has powerful arguments in its favor, from the freedom of the press precedents that the Assange prosecution would violate to the potential threat to Assange's mental health and well-being if he ends up in an American prison. That mental health argument in particular has worked in the past for British hackers the US has attempted to extradited: Ekeland's own client Lauri Love avoided extradition after a psychiatrist testified that he suffered from psychosis and depression, and UK hacker Gary McKinnon escaped extradition in 2012 thanks in part to his diagnosis of autism.
During the first day of the hearing, Assange himself revealed little of his mental state. Instead, he sat silently in a booth behind a pane of glass in the back of the courtroom, saying only a single hoarse word when the judge asked if he consented to be extradited to the United States: "No."
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for free, 24-hour support from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for the Crisis Text Line. Outside the US, visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for crisis centers around the world.