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U.K. Judge Blocks Assange Extradition on Mental Health Grounds

District Judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled that although Assange's crimes met the extradition requirements, his suicide risk was too high to allow a U.S. handover.

Protesters hold a sign to support WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in front of the EU British Embassy in Brussels on December 07, 2020.
Protesters hold a sign to support WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in front of the EU British Embassy in Brussels on December 07, 2020.
Protesters hold a sign to support WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in front of the EU British Embassy in Brussels on December 07, 2020. JOHN THYS/AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: A British judge decides the fate of Julian Assange, candidates enter final day of campaigning in U.S. Senate runoffs, OPEC+ meets to set February oil production levels, and what to watch in the world this week.

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: A British judge decides the fate of Julian Assange, candidates enter final day of campaigning in U.S. Senate runoffs, OPEC+ meets to set February oil production levels, and what to watch in the world this week.

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British Court Blocks Julian Assange Extradition

A British judge has blocked the extradition of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange to the United States on mental health grounds. District Judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled that although he meets the requirements for extradition, his suicide risk while in U.S. hands was too great to allow it go ahead.

Assanged faces an 18-count indictment in the United States related to the release of thousands of documents, including diplomatic cables, published by Wikileaks in 2010 and 2011. If the case was brought before a U.S. court, Assange could see up to 175 years in prison, although the U.S. government says a 4-6 year sentence is more likely.

Assange has been held in high-security Belmarsh prison since his forced removal from the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he had spent the previous seven years.

Baraitser contrasted his treatment in Belmarsh with those he may face on U.S. soil as grounds for blocking U.S. extradition. “Faced with the conditions of near total isolation without the protective factors which limited his risk at HMP Belmarsh, I am satisfied the procedures described by the U.S. will not prevent Mr Assange from finding a way to commit suicide and for this reason I have decided extradition would be oppressive by reason of mental harm and I order his discharge,” Baraitser said.

Rights group Amnesty International welcomed the ruling but criticized the United Kingdom for “having engaged in this politically-motivated process at the behest of the U.S.A. and putting media freedom and freedom of expression on trial.”

Michelle Stanistreet, the head of the British National Union of Journalists warned that more cases like the one Assange faced are likely to come after today’s ruling. “The judge rejected the defence case that the charges against Assange related to actions identical to those undertaken daily by most investigative journalists,” Stanistreet said. “In doing so, she leaves open the door for a future U.S. administration to confect a similar indictment against a journalist.”


The World This Week

On Tuesday, Jan. 5, Georgia Senate runoff elections take place between Republican Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue against Democratic challengers Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff.

Saudi Arabia hosts the 41st summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Qatar, under blockade from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, has been invited to the summit as part of efforts to ease tensions.

On Wednesday, Jan. 6, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives meet for a joint session to formally count Electoral College votes.

India faces queries on its agricultural and e-commerce policies as the World Trade Organization conducts a review of India’s policies and practices.

On Sunday, Jan. 10, voters in Kazakhstan go to the polls parliamentary elections, the first for the ruling Nur Otan party since the departure of Nursultan Nazarbayev as president after 29 years in power.

An early presidential election takes place in Kyrgyzstan after October’s parliamentary elections, which were annulled in the wake of protests leading to the resignation of then-President Sooronbay Jeenbekov and his replacement by the newly-appointed Prime Minister Sadyr Japarov.


What We’re Following Today

Runup to the runoff. Both U.S President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden will hold rallies in Georgia today ahead of a runoff election for the state’s two Senate seats on Tuesday.

Trump’s appearance comes after a leaked recording of a phone conversation between Trump and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger was released by the Washington Post. The recordings appear to show Trump pleading with Raffensperger to “find” the votes needed to overturn the results of the Georgia’s presidential vote, which Biden carried by a narrow 11,779-vote margin. Some legal experts argue that Trump’s apparent encouragement of electoral fraud—and veiled threats against state officials—could constitute a crime.

Polls show both Senate races in a near tie ahead of tomorrow’s vote, with over 3 million ballots already cast in early voting.

OPEC+ meets. The oil producing countries that make up OPEC+ meet today to decide on production levels for the month of February, as uneven vaccine rollout and continuing lockdowns threaten hopes of a swift return to pre-pandemic demand levels.

“Amid the hopeful signs, the outlook for the first half of 2021 is very mixed and there are still many downside risks to juggle,” OPEC Secretary General Mohammad Barkindo told a meeting on Sunday ahead of today’s summit.

OPEC+ decided in December to increase production by 500,000 barrels per day from January, although members are divided on the levels of production increases for February.

Attacks in Niger. At least 100 people were killed on Saturday in attacks on two villages in western Niger, Prime Minister Brigi Rafini said on Sunday. The killings were part of simultaneous raids on the villages of Tchombangou and Zaroumdareye by suspected Islamist militants, although Rafini did not identify a specific culprit.

Violent incidents have plagued the border area between Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso in recent years: 4,000 people were killed in Islamist-linked violence across the three countries in 2019, according to a United Nations estimate.


Keep an Eye On

Scottish independence. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has made clear his views on a potential referendum on Scottish independence, telling the BBC that such votes should only be held “once in a generation.” Under current rules, a referendum would likely need the support of the government in London to go ahead.

Johnson’s remarks come as Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon continues to push for Scottish independence, saying Scotland is “committed to a legal, constitutional route to becoming an independent state,” in an opinion piece published in the Irish Times on Saturday.

Nile dam talks. Talks between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan over access to the waters of the Nile River will continue this week with a view to concluding at the end of January, the Sudanese water ministry said in a statement on Sunday.

The three sides have yet to reach agreement on how water will be distributed from the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which downstream Egypt and Sudan see as an existential threat. Ethiopia insists its dam will only be used to generate electricity and water flows will be unaffected.

Italy’s government on edge. The Italian government is at risk of toppling as a dispute between Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and junior coalition partner Matteo Renzi heats up.

Renzi is demanding changes to Conte’s economic recovery plans and called on him to give up the reins of the country’s secret services. Reuters reports that a cabinet meeting on Jan. 7— when Conte is expected to seek backing for his economic plan—could spell the end of the government if the two ministers from Renzi’s Italia Viva party refuse to support it. 

Canada’s new travel rules. Canada is to become the latest country to require proof of a negative coronavirus test to enter its borders, as virus numbers continue to spike. Under the new rule, travelers will be required to produce a negative test from the past 72 hours, as well as fulfilling a subsequent 14-day quarantine period.

Canada’s borders are still closed to the United States and entry has essentially been restricted to Canadians even before the testing requirement was introduced. Canada has surpassed 600,000 total cases—or just under 16,000 confirmed cases per million residents, a figure four times smaller than in the United States, where there are nearly 64,000 cases per million. 


Odds and Ends

Increased mask wearing in the coronavirus-era has led to a parallel increase in demand for cosmetic surgery in South Korea, Reuters reports. One surgeon reports seeing more customers asking to get work done on the parts of the face not covered by a mask, while others, like Ryu Han-na, have used the time to get a nose job—safe in the knowledge that the area will heal before anyone sees it.

South Korea’s cosmetic surgery industry, estimated to be worth $10.7 billion in 2020, is expected to increase to $11.8 billion this year, according to Gangnam Unni, a Korean cosmetic surgery platform. Gangnam Unni reported a 63 percent increase in users of its service in 2020 over the previous year.


That’s it for today.

For more from FP, visit foreignpolicy.com, subscribe here, or sign up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or corrections to morningbrief@foreignpolicy.com

Colm Quinn was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2020 and 2022. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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