LONDON – WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on Friday came one step closer to facing charges in the United States of espionage and conspiracy to hack government computers after Washington won an appeal over his extradition in a British court.
“This is the ruling of the court,” said Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett in Friday’s ruling.
Assange’s legal team promised to appeal.
Assange, 50, is wanted in the United States to face trial on 18 charges, including violating espionage laws after WikiLeaks released thousands of secret US files in 2010.
The WikiLeaks founder, who is currently being held in London’s Belmarsh Prison, has denied wrongdoing. He was not at the hearing.
The event comes after US authorities filed a Superior Court challenge to a ruling issued in January by then-District Judge Vanessa Baraitser, who said Assange should not be extradited to the United States due to concerns about his mental health. and the risk of suicide.
WikiLeaks and Assange stormed the international scene by publishing images of a 2007 airstrike in Baghdad that resulted in the deaths of two Reuters journalists, among others.
The video, which WikiLeaks published under the title “Collateral Murder,” helped fuel a growing sense of unease among Americans over the protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the secret practices of the military.
WikiLeaks gained more attention in 2010 after it released dozens of confidential US records, which US officials said put lives at risk.
The leak, which saw the publication of classified defense documents on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as those detained at Guantanamo Bay, sparked an international outcry.
The Obama administration did not indict Assange immediately after the leak, but the WikiLeaks founder was later charged with violating the Espionage Act under former President Donald Trump.
Chelsea Manning, the member of the military who shared information with WikiLeaks, was released under the previous Obama administration after spending about a year behind bars for refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating Assange.
Assange’s lawyers have told the court that, although the United States had ensured reasonable treatment if the WikiLeaks founder was extradited, there is still a risk of his taking his own life.
They urged the court to ignore US assurances that their client would not be subjected to harsh conditions of detention, known as Special Administrative Measures.
Even if he was not subjected to such conditions, Assange’s lawyers said evidence heard during the original extradition hearing suggested that he would be detained in “conditions of extreme isolation” that could affect his mental health.
In Friday’s ruling, Burnett said: “In our view, that risk is precluded by the guarantees that are being offered. It follows that we are satisfied that, if the guarantees had been made before the judge, she would have answered the relevant question differently ”.
In response to Friday’s decision, Stella Moris, Assange’s fiancée, told reporters after the verdict: “We will appeal this decision as soon as possible.”
The ruling was “dangerous and wrong” and a “serious judicial error,” he told reporters.
Assange’s legal team confirmed that they would seek permission to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. The request to do so must be made in writing within 14 days.
Nils Melzer, the UN special rapporteur on torture, also condemned the decision.
Noting that it came on International Human Rights Day, the day the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, Melzer said the decision was “shameful.”
“In reality, they are being extradited to the United States on the basis of diplomatic assurances that they are not really worth the paper they are written on,” he told NBC News in a telephone interview.
Melzer said he believed Western governments were looking to make Assange an example.
“Western states simply fear the WikiLeaks business model, which is really enabling whistle-blowing on an unprecedented scale on the Internet,” he said. “I’m afraid this is what the states fear.”
Nick Vamos, a partner at Peters & Peters Solicitors LLP in London and a former head of extradition at the Crown Prosecution Service, said he understood the court’s decision.
“The (US) assurances were very clear,” he said, adding that they “directly addressed” concerns about Assange’s suicide risk in a US prison. “
Given that the United Kingdom “has a very high level of trust” with the United States, he said the court was unlikely to reject those assurances.
Sweden had previously requested Assange’s extradition from the UK for alleged sex crimes.
He was expected to be sent to Sweden in 2012, but he fled to the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he spent seven years before being expelled in April 2019 and imprisoned for violating British bail conditions.
At that time, the Swedish case against him had already been dropped, but the US authorities demanded his extradition.