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US govt scores a point against Assange in run-up to extradition appeal showdown

Analysis Julian Assange has lost a legal scrap in court, this time over the US government’s attempt to expand its grounds for extraditing him from England to stand trial in America.

Uncle Sam is ultimately hoping to overturn a decision made in January blocking Assange’s extradition on mental health grounds.

Lord Justice Holroyde, sitting with Mrs Justice Farbey in London’s High Court, this week overruled previous legal findings that said an expert report from Assange’s psychiatrist claiming the WikiLeaker was suicidal at the prospect of trial in the United States could not be challenged on appeal. That decision, made after a pre-hearing application by the US government ahead of a full appeal scheduled later this year, is bad news for Assange’s camp.

Back in January, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser accepted Professor Michael Kopelman’s view that Assange was likely to take his own life if extradited, describing that as “a well-informed opinion carefully supported by evidence and explained over two detailed reports.”

And now Lord Justice Holroyde and Mrs Justice Farbey have granted a US application to challenge the inclusion of Kopelman’s reports as legally sound evidence. Kopelman had initially concealed the fact that Assange had secretly fathered two children with a supporter of the WikiLeaks chief. Expert witnesses are supposed to be impartial, even though they’re being paid by one side in a contested legal proceeding.

Judge Baraitser, ruled the High Court, was wrong to say Kopelman’s decision to hide Assange’s fatherhood was “an understandable human response” to Assange’s partner Stella Moris’ desire for privacy. As a result, the King’s College London professor’s report can be challenged during the main US appeal, the court found. It is one of the very few things currently standing between the Australian and a one-way ticket to the US.

“Given the importance to the administration of justice of a court being able to reply on the impartiality of an expert witness,” the The Times reported Lord Justice Holroyde saying, “it is in my view arguable that more detailed and critical consideration should have been given to why [the professor’s] ‘understandable human response’ gave rise to a misleading report.”

Clair Dobbin QC, barrister for the US government, told the High Court that Judge Baraitser’s decision was flawed because she had accepted Kopelman’s reports. For Assange, Edward Fitzgerald QC (last seen on El Reg successfully keeping Lauri Love from being extradited to America) said the earlier decision was fine and didn’t need revisiting. Fitzgerald’s written arguments can be viewed on an Assange supporters’ blog, here.

Assange is wanted for trial by the Americans on allegations he colluded with ex-US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in an attempt to crack hashed passwords for the Pentagon’s SIPRnet; see the large bolded paragraph from previous reporting for details.

News reports from this week’s hearing said there were a total of five grounds of appeal now being pursued by the US, of which the acceptance of Kopelman’s report was one. The other four were not explained and appear to be being kept secret by both the Crown Prosecution Service (which acts for foreign governments in UK extradition cases) and Assange’s legal team. The Register is attempting to view copies of relevant court papers so we can fully report legal arguments from both sides.

The full appeal is scheduled to be heard at the High Court on October 27 and 28 this year. In the meantime, the UK’s Home Secretary Priti Patel has rubber-stamped Assange’s extradition. ®