London — A British judge rejected on Monday the United States' request to extradite WikiLeaks founder
The U.S. government said it would appeal the decision.
CBS News senior foreign correspondent Elizabeth Palmer reported from outside the Old Bailey criminal court in London that the verdict was a surprise, and it drew a huge cheer from a group of Assange supporters.
U.S. prosecutors haveand one charge of computer misuse over WikiLeaks' publication of leaked military and diplomatic documents a decade ago. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison.
Lawyers for the 49-year-old Australian argue that he was acting as a journalist and is entitled to First Amendment protections of freedom of speech for publishing leaked documents that exposed U.S. military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Though she blocked Assange's extradition, the judge rejected his legal team's claim to be protected under the freedom of speech.
Palmer reported that Assange also didn't walk out of the court a free man on Monday, despite of the verdict. He was sent straight back into custody because the U.S. legal team said it would immediately appeal the judge's ruling.
In closing submissions, Assange's legal team accused the United States of an "extraordinary, unprecedented and politicized" prosecution that sought to "criminalize obtaining and publishing information relating to 'national security.'"
The defense argued that extradition threatened Assange's human rights because he risks "a grossly disproportionate sentence" and detention in "draconian and inhumane conditions" that would exacerbate his severe depression and other mental health problems.
Lawyers for the U.S. government deny that Assange is being prosecuted merely for publishing the leaked documents, saying the case "is in large part based upon his unlawful involvement" in the theft of the diplomatic cables and military files by U.S. Army intelligence analyst .
The judge's decision is a major moment in Assange's decade-long legal limbo in Britain -- but not the final chapter, as made clear by the looming U.S. appeal.
Assange's partner, Stella Moris, who had two sons with him while he lived in the embassy, has appealed to President Donald Trump to pardon Assange before Mr. Trump leaves office on January 20.
The prosecution of Assange has been condemned by journalists and human rights groups, who say it undermines free speech around the world.
"The mere fact that this case has made it to court, let alone gone on this long, is an historic, large-scale attack on freedom of speech," said WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson. "This is a fight that affects each and every person's right to know and is being fought collectively."
Assange's legal troubles began in 2010, when he was arrested in London at the request of Sweden, which wanted to question him about allegations of rape and sexual assault made by two women. In 2012, to avoid being sent to Sweden, Assange sought refuge inside the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he was beyond the reach of U.K. and Swedish authorities - but also effectively a prisoner, unable to leave the tiny diplomatic mission in London's tony Knightsbridge area.
The relationship between Assange and his hosts eventually soured, and he was evicted from the embassy in April 2019. British police immediately arrested him for jumping bail in 2012.
Sweden dropped the sex crimes investigations in November 2019 because so much time had elapsed, but Assange remains in London's high-security Belmarsh Prison, brought to court in a prison van throughout his extradition hearing.