Julian Assange is “free to return home” to Australia once legal challenges against him are dealt with, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Tuesday, after a U.K. court denied a request to extradite the Wikileaks founder to the United States.
A British judge on Monday blocked the extradition request by the United States, where Assange was set to face criminal charges including breaking a spying law, saying his mental health problems meant he would be at risk of suicide.
The U.S. Department of Justice said it would continue to seek Assange’s extradition with prosecutors set to appeal the ruling to London’s High Court.
“Well, the justice system is making its way and we’re not a party to that. And like any Australian, they’re offered consular support and should, you know, the appeal fail, obviously he would be able to return to Australia like any other Australian,” Morrison told local radio station 2GB, as reported by Reuters. “So, yes, it’s just a straightforward process of the legal system in the U.K. working its way through.”
Meanwhile, Mexico on Monday offered political asylum to Assange, a move that could anger the United States.
“I’m going to ask the foreign minister to carry out the relevant procedures to request that the U.K. government releases Mr. Assange and that Mexico offers him political asylum,” Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador told reporters.
The leader welcomed the British court’s rejection of the U.S. request to extradite the Australian due to the risk of suicide, calling it a “triumph of justice.”
“Assange is a journalist and deserves a chance,” he said, according to remarks carried by Agence France-Presse (AFP).
Lopez Obrador said Mexico would ensure “that whoever receives asylum does not intervene or interfere in the political affairs of any country.”
Mexico has welcomed many political asylum-seekers over the years, from Nicaraguan anti-imperialist hero Cesar Augusto Sandino to Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky and, more recently, former Bolivian President Evo Morales.
Assange, 49, is accused by the United States of 17 offenses during the administration of former President Barack Obama relating to the release by WikiLeaks of confidential U.S. military records and diplomatic cables which they say put lives at risk. Assange’s supporters, however, see him as an antiestablishment hero who has been victimized because he exposed U.S. wrongdoing in Afghanistan and Iraq and say his prosecution is a politically motivated assault on journalism and free speech.
While WikiLeaks asserted it was constitutionally protected as a journalistic endeavor, in 2017 the intelligence and justice chiefs of President Donald Trump’s new administration rejected the claim and pushed for an indictment.
“WikiLeaks walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service,” said Mike Pompeo, the then CIA director and current secretary of state.
The Justice Department unveiled its indictment in 2019 and expanded it last year, announcing it would seek Assange’s extradition from Britain to stand trial in the Alexandria, Virginia federal court, which specializes in spy cases. It charged Assange under the Espionage Act and computer crimes laws with multiple counts of conspiring with and directing others, over 2009-2019, to illegally obtain and release U.S. secrets.
In doing so he aided and abetted hacking, illegally exposed confidential U.S. sources to danger and used the information to damage the United States, the charges allege.
“Julian Assange is no journalist,” said Assistant Attorney General John Demers at the time. “No responsible actors – journalist or otherwise – would purposefully publish the names of individuals he or she knew to be confidential human sources in war zones, exposing them to the greatest dangers.”
Jameel Jaffer, director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University called the charges “an unprecedented attack on press freedom, one calculated to deter journalists and publishers from exercising rights that the (Constitution) should be understood to protect.”
WikiLeaks came into the spotlight in 2010 when it leaked military video footage from 2007 showing a U.S. aircrew attacking civilians from Apache helicopters in Baghdad, killing a dozen people, including two Reuters news staff. It then released thousands of secret classified files and diplomatic cables.