US provides minimal assurances that Assange will not be sentenced to death if extradited

The British magistrates, who demanded guarantees from Washington that the WikiLeaks co-founder will receive a fair trial, will decide on May 20 if the extradition should go ahead

Protesters in favor of freeing Julian Assange, on February 21 outside the High Court of Justice in London.Associated Press/LaPresse (APN)
Rafa de Miguel

A few hours before the deadline set by British judges Victoria Sharp and Jeremy Johnson expired on Tuesday, the U.S. government provided guarantees to the British High Court of Justice that Julian Assange will receive a fair trial if he is taken from the Belmarsh maximum security prison outside of London, and extradited to the United States. However, the WikiLeaks co-founder’s legal team and his wife, Stella Assange, argued that Washington’s assurances do not go far enough and shared their deep concern for the former hacker’s health and safety.

At the end of March, the High Court ruled that Assange had a strong legal basis to appeal his extradition in three specific aspects. The U.S. government, the verdict stated, must ensure that his freedom of speech under the First Amendment of its own Constitution will be protected; also, that the Australian publisher will receive a fair trial with full guarantees, and that he will not get the death penalty.

“The United States has issued a non-assurance in relation to the first amendment [the possibility that Assange could benefit from the right to freedom of expression enshrined in the U.S. Constitution], and a standard assurance in relation to the death penalty,” Stella Assange said in a statement on social media, shared as soon as she learned of the document delivered to the High Court. “Instead, the U.S. has limited itself to blatant weasel words claiming that Julian can ‘seek to raise’ the first amendment if extradited.”

Assange’s legal team had placed great hopes in the recent comment made by U.S. President Joe Biden, who last Wednesday acknowledged for the first time in public that he was considering accepting a request from Australia to drop the case against Assange for endangering national security with the online leak of thousands of classified documents 14 years ago.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese supported a motion in the Australian lower house in February calling for Assange’s return to his home country.

“We are considering it,” Biden responded to journalists’ questions. This brief comment sparked hope that Washington would reconsider the case, and forget about a legal battle that was initiated by former president Donald Trump with vindictive overtones.

“The diplomatic note [delivered to the justices] does nothing to relieve our family’s extreme distress about his [Assange’s] future — his grim expectation of spending the rest of his life in isolation in U.S. prison for publishing award-winning journalism. The Biden administration must drop this dangerous prosecution before it is too late,” added Stella Assange.

The British judges Sharp and Johnson gave the U.S. government three weeks to offer assurances it considered necessary for Assange’s extradition, a deadline that ended Tuesday. The next hearing was provisionally set for May 20. That’s when the magistrates will listen to the parties again and, having analyzed the new commitments provided by Washington, decide whether to grant Assange a last chance to appeal his extradition to the United States before the British courts.

The extradition was greenlighted in 2022 by the then Home Secretary Priti Patel, after the Supreme Court accepted the guarantees offered by Washington regarding the safety of the prisoner, and the measures that would be adopted to prevent him from taking his own life.

The U.S. government has charged Assange on 17 counts of espionage and one count of computer misuse over his website’s publication of a trove of classified U.S. documents. The Australian journalist could be facing a prison term of 175 years for leaking over 250,000 classified cables from the U.S. State Department in November 2010. EL PAÍS was one of the media outlets that published the documents.

The case against Assange has become a global cause for freedom of the press. The campaign was not so much aimed at judges, who have been passing the hot potato, but at the U.S. and U.K. governments, which have the power to end the legal proceedings.

The Wikileaks editor has been imprisoned for almost five years. His health has deteriorated drastically, to the point that he was unable to attend, even via videoconference, the two-day hearing on his extradition in London in mid-February. Hundreds of activists in support of the editor and press freedom demanded his release in front of the High Court building.

The magistrates have before them a delicate decision, one which thousands of people around the world are closely watching. However, the court’s moves — in demanding more guarantees from the United States — did not suggest that it agreed with the arguments made by free speech activists and the media. In its ruling at the end of March, the High Court rejected Assange’s bid to appeal the extradition on the grounds that the case against him was “politically motivated.”

In the judgement, the magistrates said: “We are content (like the judge) to assume that the applicant acted out of political conviction, and that his activities exposed state involvement in serious crimes. It does not follow however that the request for his extradition is made on account of his political views.”

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