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Hearing Coverage

U.S. allowed to expand scope of Assange appeal

High Court appeal scheduled for October 27-28

Today Britain’s High Court granted the U.S. government’s request to expand the scope of its appeal of Julian Assange’s extradition ruling. Assange’s appeal hearing has been scheduled for October 27-28, 2021.

 In January of this year, the District Court blocked Assange’s extradition to the United States on the grounds that sending the WikiLeaks publisher to the harsh conditions of U.S. imprisonment would put him at grave risk of suicide. In the final days of the Trump administration, prosecutors acting on behalf of the U.S. filed an application to appeal that decision to the UK’s High Court, requesting permission to appeal on five lines of argument. A High Court judge granted the U.S. limited permission, on three of the five grounds for appeal, and today two separate High Court judges heard arguments over whether to allow the remaining two grounds.

These remaining lines of argument concern the testimony of Professor Michael Kopelman, the psychiatrist who evaluated Assange in prison and found that the combination of his Autism spectrum diagnosis and clinical depression put him at severe risk of suicide should his extradition be ordered. The U.S. wants to challenge whether Prof. Kopelman’s testimony should have been admissible and then whether the District Judge erred in her “overall assessment of the evidence going to the risk of suicide.” 

Professor Kopelman provided two reports to the Magistrate, in December 2019 and August 2020, regarding his assessment of Assange’s mental health as it pertained to potential extradition, and he testified in court in September 2020. At issue is the fact that in his first report, Professor Kopelman did not disclose that he was aware that Assange was in a relationship with Stella Moris and that they had two children together, though he referred to Assange’s children in general terms as relevant to his fears of extradition. By the time of his second report, this information was public knowledge, because the relationship was disclosed when Julian’s defense applied for bail in April 2020, and so Professor Kopelman made reference to it subsequently.

The prosecution questioned Prof. Kopelman over this omission on cross-examination in September, and he explained that he had made the difficult decision to exclude this information to respect the Assange family’s privacy. 

In her January ruling, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser recounted this chain of events and found that while Kopelman should have disclosed his knowledge of the relationship, the omission did not render his evidence inadmissible,

“I did not accept that Professor Kopelman failed in his duty to the court when he did not disclose Ms. Morris’s relationship with Mr. Assange….In my judgment Professor Kopelman’s decision to conceal their relationship was misleading and inappropriate in the context of his obligations to the court, but an understandable human response to Ms. Morris’s predicament.”

The U.S. appealed to the High Court on the grounds that Baraitser erred in this determination, contending that the omission should either render Kopelman’s testimony inadmissible or at the least should mean it is given “no, or far less, weight.” Edward Fitzgerald QC argued for the defense that, “it cannot be…that one lapse, no matter how reasonable given the human predicament, renders his whole submission inadmissible. It must be considered in context.”

The High Court’s came to the conclusion “that it is at least arguable” to challenge Kopelman’s testimony over this omission, noting Koeplman’s declaration that his duty to the court overrides any obligation to the defendant. Lord Justice Holroyde said, “To my mind, this goes more to the weight of the evidence than to its admissibility,” but the fact that it is “arguable” was enough to grant the U.S. request to appeal on the remaining two grounds. 

The High Court scheduled Assange’s appeal hearing for October 27-28. Julian followed today’s proceedings by video-link from HMP Belmarsh and will be invited to do the same in October.