A British court Friday opened the door for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to be extradited to the United States on espionage charges after it overturned on appeal a decision by a lower court that he was too high a suicide risk to withstand the American criminal justice system.
Assange is likely to appeal the ruling, his fiancée Stella Moris said.
The U.K. lower court judge in January refused a U.S. request to extradite Assange to face spying charges over WikiLeaks’ publication of secret military documents a decade ago. At the time, Judge Vanessa Baraitser denied extradition on mental health grounds, saying Assange was likely to kill himself if held under harsh U.S. prison conditions.
However, Friday’s ruling by the U.K.’s High Court came after two new judges said they were reassured by U.S. promises that it would reduce Assange’s suicide risk. U.S. authorities also told the British judges that if they agree to extradite Assange, he could serve any U.S. prison sentence he receives in his native Australia.
U.S. prosecutors have indicted Assange on 17 espionage charges and one charge of computer misuse over WikiLeaks’ publication of thousands of leaked military and diplomatic documents. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison.
Assange, 50, is currently being held at London’s high-security Belmarsh Prison, where his mental and physical health have deteriorated markedly, according to his family, supporters and Nils Melzer, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture.
But U.S. prosecutors claim his symptoms are not severe enough to prevent extradition.
Assange’s detractors also say he is not a journalist and shouldn’t be treated as such with respect to press freedoms because he doesn’t write stories or interview anyone or provide sufficient explanatory context and that the dissemination of raw, unfiltered documents and data — the publication of stolen classified materials — should not count as journalism.
Assange describes himself as a journalist and political refugee.
And he maintains that as a journalist he should be immune from prosecution and that his work revealed embarrassing and highly damaging facts about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the detainees held at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“The U.S. government’s indictment poses a grave threat to press freedom both in the United States and abroad,” said Nils Muižnieks, Europe Director for Amnesty International, the humanitarian group. “If upheld, it would undermine the key role of journalists and publishers in scrutinizing governments and exposing their misdeeds — and would leave journalists everywhere looking over their shoulders.”
The U.S. government has been seeking Assange’s extradition since 2019. It first sought his arrest in 2017. He sought refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London from 2012 to 2019.
U.S. prosecutors allege that WikiLeaks’ publication of classified materials included the publication of the unredacted names of people who were working for the U.S. government, thus putting them at serious risk. During court proceedings prosecutors have struggled to identify examples were these people were harmed.
The precise timing of Assange’s likely appeal was not immediately clear. British Home Secretary Priti Patel has the power to block extradition whatever the courts rule.
“The extradition dispute appears unlikely to be resolved very soon,” said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.
“The case will first be remanded to the lower court, and if it rules against Assange, he may appeal in the English courts and then to the European Court on Human Rights, so it could be many months before his case is resolved.”
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