Assange can appeal extradition to the United States, under British court rules

A London court ruled on Monday that Julian Assange, the embattled WikiLeaks founder, could appeal his extradition to the United States, a move that opens a new chapter in his long fight against the order in British courts.

Two High Court judges said they would allow a full appeal to be heard because questions remained about his First Amendment rights in the United States and whether his status as an Australian citizen would be prejudicial. Mr Assange's lawyers have until Friday to present the court with a full outline of the case.

Mr Assange, 52, has been held at Belmarsh, one of Britain's highest security prisons, in south-east London since 2019 as his fight against the extradition order progressed through the courts.

Earlier this year, the High Court asked the US government to guarantee that Assange would be afforded the protections afforded by the US Constitution, including that he would not be “prejudiced by reason of his nationality”, which would could rely on the First Amendment right to free speech and that the death penalty not be imposed.

The US Embassy in Britain provided assurances on these matters in a letter sent in April. Assange's legal team accepted that the United States had given assurances that she would not face the death penalty, but argued in court that the other assurances were not sufficient to satisfy the court's request.

The United States had promised that Assange would “have the ability to raise and demand” First Amendment protections. “We say this is a patently inadequate guarantee,” said Edward Fitzgerald, one of Assange's lawyers, arguing that “there is no guarantee that he will be allowed to rely on the First Amendment.”

In their decision on Monday, the judges agreed that Mr Assange had grounds to appeal on that basis.

Mr. Assange is charged in the United States under the Espionage Act relating to WikiLeaks' publication of tens of thousands of secret military and diplomatic documents leaked on the site by Chelsea Manning, an Army intelligence analyst, in 2010 .

In June 2012, Mr Assange entered the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he remained for the next seven years out of fear that he might be arrested. He was eventually evicted from the embassy in 2019 and was promptly arrested.

The US Justice Department had charged Assange with 18 counts of violating the Espionage Act by participating in a hacking conspiracy and encouraging hackers to steal classified material. In 2021, an extradition order for Mr Assange was denied by a British judge, who ruled that he would be at risk of suicide if sent to a US prison, but the High Court later overturned that decision. In 2022, Priti Patel, Britain's Home Secretary at the time, approved the extradition request.

An earlier request for an appeal by Mr Assange's legal team was rejected by a judge, before the two judges who made Monday's decision decided his appeal could go ahead.

Speaking outside court after the decision, Rebecca Vincent, campaign director of Reporters Without Borders, an advocacy group that has long denounced the allegations against Assange, called the decision a victory for his case, but more broadly a victory for freedom of the press.

“It's been too long to get to this point, but it's so important,” he said, before urging President Biden to “make this his legacy” and drop the case.

Kristinn Hrafnsson, editor in chief of WikiLeaks, said the court sent a clear message to the US government, declaring: “You're losing, drop the case.”

Since his arrest in 2019, Mr Assange has rarely been seen and, according to his legal team, at his final hearing on Monday he decided not to attend the hearing for undisclosed health reasons. During his time in prison, his lawyers and his wife, Stella Assange, have warned about his physical and mental health. In 2021, Ms. Assange suffered a small stroke. Speaking before the final hearing, Ms Assange said her concerns about her mental health were “very serious”.

Mr. Hrafnsson, WikiLeaks' editor-in-chief, said at a news conference last week that Mr. Assange's legal team had focused its efforts on a political solution, which he said “has paid off.”

“More and more political leaders are taking Julian's side,” Hrafnsson said, “they see the absurdity in this case. And how serious the implications this would have for press freedom around the world.”

The Australian government has thrown its support behind Mr Assange, an Australian citizen, and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has said he hopes the case can be “resolved amicably”.

Last month, President Biden said the administration was considering a request from Australia that Mr Assange be allowed to return there and not face prison, suggesting Washington may reconsider the case. The US Department of Justice declined to comment at this time.

Supporters have long argued that Mr Assange's life could be at risk if he were sent to the United States for trial. While his lawyers say he could face up to 175 years in prison if convicted, U.S. government lawyers have said he is more likely to be sentenced to four to six years.

James Lewis, a U.S. lawyer, argued in court on Monday that assurances provided by the United States made it clear that Mr. Assange would have broad safeguards to ensure that the United States complied with British extradition law.

The protracted nature of the case is not unheard of, partly because of Britain's extradition rules, which allow appeals on a variety of issues, said Nick Vamos, the former head of extradition for the United Kingdom. Crown Prosecution Service.

“The courts will consider many different types of arguments about fairness, prison conditions, human rights, political motivations and all these things,” Vamos said, adding that ultimately, this may have allowed Assange to “ To gain some time”. ” for a political solution.


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