LONDON – A British court ruled on Friday that Julian Assange may be extradited to the United States to face charges that could result in decades in jail, reversing a lower court decision in the long-running case against the embattled WikiLeaks founder.
The ruling was a victory, at least for now, for the Biden administration, which has pursued an effort to prosecute Assange begun under the Trump administration. But Assange will seek to appeal the decision to Britain’s Supreme Court, according to his legal team.
The Justice Department’s decision to indict Mr. Assange under the Espionage Act in connection with obtaining and publishing secret government documents has raised novel First Amendment issues and alarmed press freedom advocates. But because he has been fighting extradition, those issues have not been litigated, and his transfer to the United States could spark a momentous constitutional battle.
Britain’s extradition case has focused not on whether the charges against Assange are legitimate, a lower court judge ruled that they were, but on whether prison conditions in the United States are too harsh for his mental health.
In ruling that Mr. Assange can be extradited, the London High Court said it was satisfied with the assurances provided by the Biden administration that it would not hold him in the more austere conditions reserved for high-security prisoners and that, if it were to be sentenced, he would allow him to serve his sentence in his native Australia if he so requested.
Wyn Hornbuckle, a spokesman for the US Department of Justice, said the government was “pleased with the ruling” and would not comment further. But a US attorney for Assange, Barry J. Pollack, called it “disturbing” that the British court had accepted the US government’s “vague assurances” of humane treatment.
“The UK court made this decision without considering whether extradition is appropriate when the United States is pressing charges against him that could result in decades in prison, because he has reported truthful information on newsworthy topics such as the wars in Iraq. and Afghanistan “. he said.
Assange fled to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2012 when he faced an investigation into allegations of sexual assault in Sweden, which were eventually dropped. He said he feared his human rights would be violated if he was extradited in that case.
He remained in the embassy for seven years until he was expelled in 2019. The United States unveiled a formal indictment against him on charges of piracy on the day of his expulsion, then indicted him under the Espionage Act weeks later. He has been detained in London’s Belmarsh Prison since 2019.
The complex case against Assange centers on his 2010 release of leaked diplomatic and military files by Chelsea Manning, a former army intelligence analyst, not on his release during the 2016 election of the Democratic emails stolen by Russia.
Over the course of three indictments developed during the Trump administration, prosecutors have made two sets of accusations.
The first is that Assange was involved in a criminal hacking conspiracy, both by offering to help Ms Manning mask her tracks on a secure computer network and by participating in a broader effort to encourage hackers to obtain secret material and submit it to WikiLeaks. The other is that his request and publication of information that the government considered secret violated the Espionage Law.
Hacking is not a journalistic act. But the second set of charges could set a precedent that journalistic-style activities such as seeking and publishing information that the government deems classified can be treated as a crime in the United States, a separate question from whether Assange himself counts as a journalist.
In January, a lower court judge rejected the extradition request on the grounds that Assange could be driven to suicide by US prison conditions. On January 19, in one of its last acts, the Trump administration filed an appeal. Shortly after taking office, the Biden administration decided to go ahead with the effort.
Friday’s court ruling said the decision to allow the extradition was based on a number of US guarantees, including that Assange would receive the necessary psychological treatment and that, if convicted, he would not be detained in the only federal center. from the country. supermax prison – highest security facility housing worst criminals in the country.
Several doctors have said that Assange suffers from depression and memory loss and could attempt suicide if extradited, an argument that was central to his case.
Assange’s fiancée, Stella Moris, said in a statement that she would appeal “at the earliest possible moment” and called Friday’s decision a “grave judicial error.” Ms. Moris and Mr. Assange have two children, conceived during the seven years he was in hiding at the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
Kristinn Hrafnsson, WikiLeaks editor-in-chief, denounced the court ruling, warning that Assange’s life “is once again under grave threat, and also the right of journalists to publish material that governments and corporations deem inconvenient.” .
He added: “It is about the right of a free press to publish without being threatened by an intimidating superpower.”
Activists who gathered outside the courthouse in central London erupted in protest after news of the decision leaked outside. And human rights groups were quick to condemn the move.
Christophe Deloire, director of Reporters Without Borders, said in a statement that his group believed that Assange “has been targeted for his contributions to journalism, and we defend this case for its dangerous implications for the future of journalism and press freedom. the world.”
He added: “It is time to end this persecution of more than a decade once and for all.”
Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight Institute of the First Amendment at Columbia University, who testified in the extradition proceedings about the implications of the indictment for press freedom, reiterated “deep concerns” about the case in a statement in response. to failure.
The indictment, he said, focused largely on the activities that investigative journalists routinely engage in.
“The message of the prosecution is that these activities are not only unprotected by the First Amendment but are criminal under the Espionage Act,” he said. “The Trump administration should never have brought this charge, and we again call on the Biden administration to drop it.”