High Court in U.K. postpones Julian Assange’s extradition pending guarantees from U.S. administration

High Court in U.K. postpones Julian Assange’s extradition pending guarantees from U.S. administration

LONDON — A British court ruled Tuesday that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will not be extradited immediately to the United States to face hacking and espionage charges and that U.S. officials must first provide assurances to British authorities that he will be able to rely on free speech protections and not incur the death penalty in a U.S. trial.

The U.K. High Court in London gave U.S. officials three weeks to provide the assurances and said Assange would be able to appeal his extradition if those promises are not forthcoming. A decision on whether Assange will be granted a full appeal hearing has been pushed back until May 20, provided the United States grants the assurances.

Assange is expected to remain for now in London’s Belmarsh prison, where he has been held since 2019.

Speaking to reporters outside of the High Court, Stella Assange, Julian’s wife, called the decision “astounding.”

“What the courts have done is to invite a political intervention from the United States, to send a letter saying, ‘It’s all okay,’” she said. “The Biden administration should not issue assurances; they should drop this shameful case that should never have been brought.”

An indictment filed in Virginia accuses Assange, 52, of helping former Army private Chelsea Manning hack into U.S. systems and obtaining thousands of pages of classified military records and diplomatic cables about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2010. Prosecutors say Assange put lives at risk by publishing the documents, which included unredacted names of sources and other sensitive military details, as part of a mass exposé on WikiLeaks.

Assange’s supporters and several leading news organizations say he was a journalist publishing damning information about U.S. actions abroad and that his extradition and prosecution would set a legal precedent undermining the First Amendment.

The long-stalled case against Assange could begin to move quickly if the extradition is granted by the British courts. But in that event, Assange would then have a final opportunity to appeal his extradition to the European Court of Human Rights, based in Strasbourg, France.

The WikiLeaks founder would face a maximum sentence of decades in prison if convicted of all charges. The 18-count indictment does not include allegations that Assange published Democratic officials’ emails that were hacked as part of a Russian campaign to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

In a 66-page decision Tuesday, judge Victoria Sharp rejected most of Assange’s arguments but found that he had a “real prospect” of success on three grounds: that his extradition would be incompatible with the freedom of expression, that he might face prejudice because of his Australian nationality, and that the current framework for his extradition inadequately protects Assange from the death penalty.

U.S. officials have never raised the prospect of the death penalty in Assange’s case. Justice Department officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The court gave the U.S. government three weeks to provide assurances that Assange will be permitted to rely on the First Amendment as part of his legal defense, that he will have the same free-speech protections as any U.S. citizen, that officials will not seek the death penalty, and that Assange’s nationality will not prejudice his legal proceedings. If the assurances are not given, Assange would be able to appeal his extradition again, the court ruled. He had lost a previous appeal at Britain’s highest court in 2021.

President Barack Obama commuted Manning’s sentence in 2017 after she was convicted of Espionage Act and other offenses related to the WikiLeaks disclosures. Justice Department officials declined to pursue charges against Assange during the Obama administration, then reversed course and obtained an indictment under President Donald Trump — but the move stirred controversy. Prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia disagreed on whether to file charges under the Espionage Act, a law that is typically used to charge sources who leak from inside the government, not the publishers who disseminate the information through their platforms.

Officials under Attorney General Merrick Garland, an appointee of President Biden, have overseen much of the extradition process amid growing international opposition. Australia’s Parliament voted last month to call on the British and U.S. governments to release Assange.

A British judge initially halted Assange’s extradition in January 2021, finding him “a depressed and sometimes despairing man” at high risk of suicide in the solitary or highly restrictive conditions he might face in U.S. custody.

In a letter last year inviting King Charles III to tour the conditions in Belmarsh prison, Assange noted that a fellow inmate facing deportation had committed suicide yards away from his cell.

The U.S. government offered not to impose “special administrative measures” on Assange and to keep him out of the federal supermax prison in Florence, Colo., pending trial. U.S. officials agreed to let Assange serve any sentence in Australia if he were convicted, and they noted that Assange would be offered clinical and psychological treatment while in custody.

Britain’s highest court had previously approved the extradition in December 2021, finding that “the United Kingdom and the USA have a long history of cooperation in extradition matters, and the USA has in the past frequently provided, and invariably fulfilled, assurances.” Assange was allowed to raise more arguments after that ruling.

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