MEXICO CITY — Mexico has offered political asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange shortly after the US’s request to extradite him was rejected by a judge in the UK.
“It is a triumph of justice. I celebrate that England acted in this way because Assange is a journalist and deserves a chance,” Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said as he made his offer.
On Monday, a British judge ruled that Assange, who faces 17 espionage charges, would be at risk of killing himself if he were placed in isolation in a US prison given the state of his mental health. The Department of Justice said it would continue to seek his extradition to the US.
Vanessa Baraitser, a district judge in England, rejected arguments by Assange’s lawyers — that the charges were an attack on press freedom and politically motivated — and accepted the US's claim that his alleged activities did not count as journalism. The judge based her ruling on medical evidence about his mental health: “The overall impression is of a depressed and sometimes despairing man, who is genuinely fearful about his future. I find that the mental condition of Mr Assange is such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the United States of America,” she concluded.
Baraitser referenced Jeffrey Epstein's 2019 death in prison as evidence that it's not feasible to prevent suicides in US prisons. She also noted that Assange’s diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder could cause him to kill himself with “single minded determination.”
In the US, prosecutors have indicted Assange on 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act and one charge of computer misuse over the publication on WikiLeaks of military and diplomatic documents, which carry a sentence of up to 175 years in prison.
Assange’s legal team announced that it would make a new appeal for his release from prison in the UK, citing COVID-19 rates at the high-security prison where he is being held.
In 2010, Swedish authorities requested Assange's arrest after two women accused him of rape and sexual assault. The UK arrested Assange, but he jumped bail in 2012, seeking refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy. In April 2019, Ecuador expelled him from the embassy, and he was arrested and sentenced to 50 weeks in prison for jumping bail. In November, Sweden dropped the charges against him, saying that the evidence it had found was not strong enough to support an indictment.
López Obrador’s announcement was seen by many in Mexico as ironic. His government has been criticized for its harsh treatment of asylum-seekers from neighboring crime-ridden countries in Central America, as well as for the president’s frequent and hostile tirades against journalists, which have included comparing them to criminal gangs. Mexico is the most dangerous country for journalists in the Western Hemisphere, according to the New York–based Committee to Protect Journalists.
His offer to Assange is likely to irritate the incoming US administration, especially after López Obrador’s initial refusal to congratulate President-elect Joe Biden after his win. In his eventual letter to Biden, López Obrador issued an implicit warning against any involvement in Mexico’s internal affairs.
If Assange, 49, is able to take up Mexico’s offer of political asylum, he will land in a country struggling to control the pandemic. Mexico has the fourth-highest number of deaths in the world, and its capital city is currently in lockdown as its hospitals, virtually out of beds, is bracing for a postholiday surge of patients.
But Assange will find an unlikely ally in the Mexican president.
“We will give him protection,” López Obrador promised.
Correction: Mexico has the fourth-highest number of deaths from COVID-19 of any country. This statistic was misstated in an earlier version of this post.