Assange Extradition Case Returns to UK Court

Since 2019, Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, has been held in a high security prison in southeast London while his lawyers fight a U.S. extradition order. Now, that particular battle may be nearing its end.

On Tuesday, Mr. Assange’s case returned to a British court for a two-day hearing that will determine whether he has exhausted his right to appeal within the U.K. and whether he could be one step closer to being sent to the United States.

Julian Assange leaving Westminster Magistrates Court in London in 2020. A High Court hearing this week will determine whether he has exhausted his right to appeal in the U.K.Credit…Henry Nicholls/Reuters

Mr. Assange did not appear before the court, declining to attend virtually because of ill health, according to his lawyers, but dozens of protesters gathered outside, demanding his release.

In the United States, Assange, 52, faces charges under the Espionage Act of 1917 that could amount to a sentence of up to 175 years in prison, his lawyers say, although lawyers for the United States government had previously said that he was more likely to be sentenced to between four and six years. Here’s what to know about the long-running legal battle over his extradition and what could happen next.

The U.S. charges against Mr. Assange date to events in 2010, when WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of secret military and diplomatic documents leaked by Chelsea Manning, an Army intelligence analyst.

The files exposed hidden diplomatic dealings and included revelations about civilian deaths in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In May 2019, during the Trump presidency, the U.S. Justice Department accused Mr. Assange of violating the Espionage Act by soliciting and publishing secret government information, charges that raise profound First Amendment issues. (The Obama administration had considered charging Mr. Assange but decided against it because of the threat to press freedom.)

While Mr. Assange for years has been fighting efforts to extradite him from Britain to face the U.S. charges, his life in limbo in London goes back even further.

In June 2012, Mr. Assange entered the Ecuadorean Embassy in London to escape extradition to Sweden, where he faced an inquiry into unrelated allegations of sexual misconduct and rape that were later dropped. He stayed in the embassy for the next seven years.

In April 2019, he was thrown out of the embassy, where he had become an unwelcome guest, and was promptly arrested after skipping bail. Weeks later, the U.S. Justice Department unsealed an indictment which charged Mr. Assange with 18 counts of violating the Espionage Act, by participating in a criminal hacking conspiracy and by encouraging hackers to steal secret material. (Ms. Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison in 2013, but was released in 2017, when President Obama commuted her sentence.)

The extradition order for Mr. Assange was initially denied by a British judge who ruled in January 2021 that Assange was at risk of suicide if sent to a U.S. prison. Britain’s High Court later reversed that decision after assurances from American officials about his treatment. Priti Patel, Britain’s then home secretary, approved the extradition request in 2022.

But the legal challenges continued. Mr. Assange’s legal team had an earlier request for an appeal to Ms. Patel’s order rejected by a single judge. Now, two High Court judges will hear his final bid for an appeal in a British court.

Mr. Assange’s legal team was expected to outline its case on Tuesday, followed by the U.S. Justice Department’s legal team. The judges will then consider the case — which could take hours, days or weeks — before announcing their decision.

And there are a few potential outcomes. The judges could allow Mr. Assange to appeal his extradition order, in which case a full appeal hearing would be scheduled, opening the door to a new decision about his extradition.

Or, if Mr. Assange’s request to appeal is denied, he could be sent swiftly to a plane bound for the United States, his legal team has said. But his lawyers have vowed to challenge his extradition in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.

Theoretically, that could block his extradition from Britain until the case was heard in Strasbourg because Britain is obliged to follow the court’s judgment as a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights.

Stella Assange, Mr. Assange’s wife, said during a press briefing last week that her husband, who has been suffering from depression, has aged prematurely during his years in prison, and she fears for his mental and physical health.

“His life is at risk every single day he stays in prison, and if he’s extradited, he will die,” she said. The pair, who began a relationship while Mr. Assange lived in the Ecuadorean Embassy, have two children, and they regularly visit Mr. Assange in prison.

“Julian and I protect the children. They don’t know frankly,” Ms. Assange said about the indictment against him. “And I don’t think it’s fair on them to know what is going on.”

Alice Jill Edwards, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, has urged Britain to halt Mr. Assange’s extradition, citing fears that, if extradited, he would be at risk of treatment amounting to torture or other forms of punishment. In a statement earlier this month, she pointed to risks that he could face “prolonged solitary confinement, despite his precarious mental health status, and to receive a potentially disproportionate sentence.”

The Australian government has also called for Mr. Assange, an Australian citizen, to be sent to his home country, where its parliament passed a motion last week calling for his release. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said he had discussed the matter in a meeting last fall with President Biden, and on Thursday Mr. Albanese told the Australian parliament “it is appropriate for us to put our very strong view that those countries need to take into account the need for this to be concluded.”

Rights groups like Amnesty International and advocates for press freedom, including Reporters Without Borders, have long called for the U.S. charges against Mr. Assange to be dropped and the extradition order canceled.

Rebecca Vincent, the director of international campaigns for Reporters Without Borders, said in a statement ahead of the hearing that the U.S. could drop the extradition request or consider Mr. Assange’s time in Belmarsh prison as time served.

“None of this is inevitable,” Ms. Vincent said in a statement ahead of the hearing. “No one should face such treatment for publishing information in the public interest.”

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