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Top British official orders Julian Assange’s extradition to U.S.

Supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange gather outside a court in London on April 20. (Alastair Grant/AP)
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The British government on Friday ordered WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s extradition to the United States to face espionage and hacking charges, but his attorneys said they will seek to keep him in Britain by pursuing new appeals.

Assange has been held in a London prison since 2019, after seven years evading arrest by seeking political asylum in the Ecuadoran Embassy.

His attorneys argued that he was at high risk of suicide under the restrictions he might face while in U.S. custody.

The British Home Office said in a statement that “the UK courts have not found that it would be oppressive, unjust or an abuse of process to extradite Mr Assange. Nor have they found that extradition would be incompatible with his human rights, including his right to a fair trial and to freedom of expression.”

Priti Patel, the British home secretary, signed the extradition order. The home secretary is the final authority on extradition in the British system — although Assange has other legal avenues he can pursue to block the move, and experts say his arrival in the United States is far from imminent.

The Home Office said Assange “will only be surrendered to the requesting state when all avenues of legal challenge are exhausted.”

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange charged with violating Espionage Act

In a statement, the WikiLeaks organization condemned the decision to extradite as “a dark day for press freedom and for British democracy,” calling the home secretary “an accomplice of the United States in its agenda to turn investigative journalism into a criminal enterprise.”

The organization said Assange’s legal team will appeal: “Today is not the end of the fight. It is only the beginning of a new legal battle. We will appeal through the legal system, the next appeal will be before the High Court.”

A grand jury in Virginia indicted Assange on 18 counts, including conspiracy and disclosure of national defense information. Prosecutors allege that he worked with former Army private Chelsea Manning in 2010 to obtain and publish thousands of pages of military records and diplomatic cables about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The release of the information, officials have alleged, put lives in danger. Assange says he was within his rights as a journalist and publisher in seeking out and disseminating information on controversial U.S. activities.

Barry Pollack, a U.S.-based attorney for Assange, said of the extradition order, “This is disappointing news that should concern anyone who cares about the First Amendment and the right to publish.”

Stella Assange, a former lawyer for the WikiLeaks founder and now his wife and mother of their two children, said at a news conference in London that extradition to the United States would have “extremely serious implications” for journalism, human rights and Julian Assange personally.

“We’re going to fight this,” she said. “I’m going to spend every waking hour fighting for Julian until he is free.”

Before his extradition, Assange could ask Britain’s highest court to hear more arguments, or he could pursue an appeal in the European Court of Human Rights. Each court would have to agree to hear Assange’s appeal, which is not guaranteed. The Home Office said Assange has two weeks to request an appeal in Britain’s high court.

As part of the extradition proceedings, the British high court in December accepted the U.S. government’s assurances about specific safety measures it would implement for Assange. The court refused to hear Assange’s appeal on that point in March.

In January 2021, a British trial judge had halted Assange’s extradition, finding him “a depressed and sometimes despairing man, who is genuinely fearful about his future,” and at high risk of suicide in the solitary or highly restrictive conditions he might face in U.S. custody.

The U.S. government then offered not to impose “special administrative measures” on Assange, and to keep him out of the federal supermax prison in Florence, Colo., pending trial, unless he did something in the future to merit such restrictions. The U.S. government said it would let Assange serve his sentence in Australia if he were convicted, and Australia agreed to it. The government also offered to provide him with clinical and psychological treatment, following medical recommendations, while he remained in custody.

Based on those assurances, the British high court allowed the extradition to proceed, noting that “the United Kingdom and the USA have a long history of cooperation in extradition matters, and the USA has in the past frequently provided, and invariably fulfilled, assurances.” The court also noted that a witness that Assange’s team called during the proceedings had conceded that the Alexandria Detention Center, where Assange might be held in Virginia pending trial, was a well-run jail with “a stellar record” on preventing suicide.

Nick Vamos, a London-based extradition expert, said that Patel’s decision was not really in doubt after the courts’ rulings because “she has very narrow discretion once the case has been sent to her.”

But Assange still may convince a higher court to weigh his arguments that the U.S. prosecution is politically motivated and an infringement on his freedom of speech, Vamos said, predicting this “won’t be the end of the road for a while.”

Karla Adam contributed to this report.

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