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London court rules WikiLeaks founder Assange can appeal against an extradition order to the US

High Court judges Victoria Sharp and Jeremy Johnson said Assange has grounds to challenge the United Kingdom’s government’s extradition order

A protester with Julian Assange outside the High Court of England, on March 26 in London.
A protester with Julian Assange outside the High Court of England, on March 26 in London.Toby Melville (REUTERS)

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange can appeal against extradition to the United States on espionage charges, a London court ruled on Monday — a decision that is likely to further drag out what has already been a long legal saga.

High Court judges Victoria Sharp and Jeremy Johnson said Assange has grounds to challenge the United Kingdom’s government’s extradition order. Assange faces 17 espionage charges and one charge of computer misuse over his website’s publication of a trove of classified U.S. documents almost 15 years ago.

The co-founder of WikiLeaks has been under provisional arrest in the high-security Belmarsh prison, on the outskirts of London, since April 2019. The prisoner’s health has suffered a serious deterioration in the last year, which is why he has not been present at court hearings, not even through videoconference. His wife, Stella Assange, was at the court building first thing in the morning. Hundreds of protesters came to express their support for the former hacker.

Assange’s legal team has tried in recent months to give their client one last opportunity to appeal his extradition before British justice. The decision to approve the extradition was adopted in 2022 by then Home Secretary Priti Patel, once the Supreme Court approved the guarantees offered by Washington regarding the safety of the prisoner, and the measures they would adopt to prevent him from ending his own life.

However, judges Sharp and Johnson decided to validate three of the arguments put forward by the publisher’s lawyers to prevent his extradition to U.S. authorities. On March 26, the court demanded additional guarantees from Washington that, when the time came for him to be tried in that country, Assange could invoke the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects freedom of the press, in his own defense; that his rights would not be reduced out of the fact of not being a U.S. Citizen, and that the court would not impose the death penalty on the accused.

175 years in prison

The court gave Washington three weeks to offer a response, which came at the last minute as a series of commitments and ambiguous statements. The U.S. authorities assured, in a diplomatic communication to the judges, that Assange would not be discriminated against due to his nationality, nor would they demand the death penalty, because it is not contemplated in the crimes of which he is accused. The U.S. government accuses the prisoner of 17 charges of violation of the Espionage Act and one charge of computer misuse. The Australian editor could face 175 years in prison for the leak of more than 250,000 classified documents from the U.S. State Department in November 2010. EL PAÍS was one of the media outlets that participated in that concerted effort to publish these papers.

“The U.S. response has been to say that Assange will always be able to use the First Amendment in his defense, but that it will be the court that must decide whether to admit it or not. That is no guarantee, quite the opposite. It does not clarify anything about what may happen if he is eventually extradited to the United States,” Jennifer Robinson, the Australian publisher’s lawyer, explained last week at a briefing in London with the Foreign Press Association.

The current Australian government and its parliament have requested the release of Assange, a citizen of that country. The legislative chamber approved a resolution with the same request in February, with the conservative opposition voting against. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese supported the request with his vote, and has conveyed to Washington his government’s wish that the extradition request be dropped and the co-founder of WikiLeaks allowed to return home.

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