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Risk of suicide should not block Julian Assange being extradited to the US, as prisoners in Britain are nearly five times more likely to kill themselves, the High Court has been told.
On Tuesday, lawyers for the US government began an appeal against a court’s decision in January to block the extradition of the WikiLeaks founder over concerns it would be “oppressive”, given his suicide risk.
The 50-year-old is wanted in the US on 18 criminal charges linked to a vast leak of sensitive military documents published by the WikiLeaks website.
US authorities argued at a hearing in London on Tuesday that the decision of District Judge Vanessa Baraitser risked “rewarding fugitives for their flight”.
‘Barrier to extradition’
James Lewis QC, for the US government, said the lower court had been mistaken for viewing Mr Assange’s “intellectual ability” to overcome suicide prevention measures in an American jail as a “trump card”.
A defendant in a British court would still be deemed fit to face trial if they were intent on suicide, he told the High Court, meaning the ruling in January created an "anomaly" between domestic criminal proceedings and extradition proceedings.
Mr Lewis said, in written legal arguments, the approach taken by the previous judge erected a “barrier to extradition” that no state, including the UK, would be able overcome.
"Indeed, it was uncontroversial in these proceedings that the suicide rate in US prisons is substantially lower than it is in prisons in this jurisdiction,” he said.
Evidence previously put before the court showed the suicide rate in a US state prison was 21 per 100,000 people, compared to 100 per 100,000 people in jails in England and Wales.
The US has also assured Britain that, if convicted, Mr Assange would be able to serve his sentence in Australia, his home country, and pledged he would not face detention under harsh conditions in a so-called “supermax” prison.
Edward Fitzgerald QC, for Mr Assange, argued that the previous judge was right to focus mainly “on the effect of imminent extradition itself on Mr Assange’s suicide risk”, rather than speculation about the “future deterioration of his mental health” in custody.
He accused the US government of seeking to “minimise the severity of Mr Assange’s mental disorder and suicide risk”, including a “depressive disorder” and “autism spectrum disorder”.
The hearing before the Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett and Lord Justice Holroyde is expected to end on Thursday, with a decision at a later date.