The Guardian view on Julian Assange's extradition ruling: relief, not victory | Editorial

A judge has rightly rejected the US request, but only on mental health grounds. The case should be dropped

Donald Trump is using his last days in office to pardon those who do not deserve it. Among the most egregious recipients are the Blackwater security guards responsible for the Nisour Square massacre – the killing of unarmed civilians, including children, in Iraq. The president’s deplorable decision fits a pattern: just over a year ago, he pardoned a former army lieutenant found guilty of murder after ordering his men to fire at three Afghans, and a former US army commando facing trial over the killing of a suspected bombmaker.

There has been no such mercy shown to a man whom the US is pursuing after he cast an unforgiving light on its abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan. Julian Assange’s future is dependent on the decisions of British courts. On Monday, district judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled that the WikiLeaks founder could not be extradited to the US, where he has been charged under the Espionage Act, including for publishing classified material.

But she rejected defence arguments that the prosecution had misrepresented the facts and that he was being pursued for a political offence. She ruled against extradition only on the grounds that the risk of him killing himself was substantial, given his mental health and the conditions in which he was likely to be held – in isolation in a “supermax” high-security prison.

This decision is a relief for Mr Assange and his family. But it is no cause for celebration for the defendant and his supporters, or for those concerned about press freedom more broadly. The American Civil Liberties Union has described charging him over publication as “a direct assault on the first amendment”. The ruling offers no protection to any journalist who might find themselves in Mr Assange’s position. It is no victory for the right to share material of clear public interest.

Mr Assange’s lawyers will on Wednesday apply for bail on his behalf. Legal experts suggest that his chances are poor: he served a 50-week sentence for skipping bail after police removed him from the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he had fled to avoid extradition to Sweden over a sexual assault investigation that was subsequently dropped. But his prospects of avoiding extradition now appear considerably brighter; he has a family to consider; and his mental health and the physical risks posed by Covid in Belmarsh prison, where he has been held since April 2019, make the case for bail more pressing.

Legal proceedings are likely to drag on for years – unless the US chooses to scrap these charges rather than appeal. It should do so. There is a shameful contrast between this administration’s simultaneous pardoning of men for horrific offences and the pursuit of a man who exposed war crimes. When Joe Biden takes office on 20 January, he cannot undo the damage caused by undue and unjust lenience. But he can, and should, let Mr Assange walk free.

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