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British court says Assange can be extradited to U.S. on spying charges; appeal likely

Julian Assange raises his fist in the air
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange greets supporters outside the Ecuadorean Embassy in London in 2017.
(Frank Augstein / Associated Press)

A British appellate court has opened the door for Julian Assange to be extradited to the United States by overturning a lower court ruling that found the WikiLeaks founder’s mental health was too fragile to withstand the American criminal justice system.

The High Court in London ruled that U.S. assurances were enough to guarantee that Assange would be treated humanely, and directed a lower court judge to send the extradition request to Britain’s home secretary for review. The home secretary, who oversees law enforcement, will make the final decision on whether to extradite Assange.

“There is no reason why this court should not accept the assurances as meaning what they say,” the High Court ruling stated. “There is no basis for assuming that the USA has not given the assurances in good faith.”

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Assange’s fiancee, Stella Moris, called the decision a “grave miscarriage of justice” and said Assange’s lawyers would seek to appeal to Britain’s Supreme Court.

“We will fight,” Moris said outside court, where supporters gathered with banners demanding Assange’s release. “Every generation has an epic fight to fight and this is ours, because Julian represents the fundamentals of what it means to live in a free society.”

Assange, 50, is currently being held at London’s high-security Belmarsh Prison. His supporters gathered outside the High Court on Friday, waving banners demanding his release.

With his shock of Warhol-white hair, black leather jacket and self-proclaimed mission to lay bare official malfeasance, Australian-born Julian Assange burst onto the world stage more than a decade ago with his creation of the WikiLeaks website.

A lower-court judge earlier this year refused an American request to extradite Assange to the U.S. to face spying charges over WikiLeaks’ publication of secret military documents a decade ago. District Judge Vanessa Baraitser denied extradition on health grounds, saying Assange was likely to kill himself if held under harsh U.S. prison conditions.

The United States appealed, challenging the notion that Assange’s mental health made him too vulnerable to withstand the U.S. judicial system. Lawyer James Lewis said Assange “has no history of serious and enduring mental illness” and does not meet the threshold of being so ill that he cannot resist harming himself.

U.S. authorities have told British judges that if they agree to extradite Assange, he could serve any U.S. prison sentence he receives in his native Australia. The authorities also said he wouldn’t be held at the supermax penitentiary in Florence, Colo.

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, although Lewis said “the longest sentence ever imposed for this offense is 63 months.”

In second day of testimony, lawyers for WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange said he partnered with media groups instead of releasing cables naming secret sources.

Since WikiLeaks began publishing classified documents more than a decade ago, Assange has become a polarizing figure.

Some see him as a dangerous secret-spiller who endangered the lives of informers and others who helped the U.S. in war zones. Others say WikiLeaks shone a light on official malfeasance that governments want to keep secret.

American prosecutors say Assange unlawfully helped U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning steal classified diplomatic cables and military files that WikiLeaks later published, putting lives at risk. Lawyers for Assange argue that he was acting as a journalist and is entitled to 1st Amendment free-speech protections for publishing documents that exposed U.S. military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Assange has been in prison since he was arrested in April 2019 for skipping bail during a separate legal battle. Before that, he spent seven years holed up inside Ecuador’s Embassy in London. Assange sought protection in the embassy in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden to face allegations of rape and sexual assault.

Sweden dropped the sexual assault investigations in November 2019 because so much time had elapsed.


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