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British High Court rules in favor of U.S. extradition of Julian Assange

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange holds in a U.N. arbitrary-detention report on his case while speaking with journalists in London on Feb. 5, 2016. (Niklas Halle'n/AFP/Getty Images)

LONDON — The High Court ruled Friday that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange can be extradited to the United States to face charges of violating the Espionage Act.

The 50-year-old Australian will remain in London’s Belmarsh Prison, where he has been held since April 2019 after the Ecuadoran Embassy revoked his political asylum.

Stella Moris, Assange’s partner, mother of his two children and his former lawyer, said they will file a final appeal to the British Supreme Court, which would hear the case only if the court believes it involves a point of law “of general public importance.” That process could take weeks or months.

If the British Supreme Court court declines to hear Assange’s final appeal, he could seek a stay of extradition from the European Court of Human Rights — to whose jurisdiction Britain is still subject — a substantial legal hurdle.

The story behind Julian Assange’s extradition case and legal saga

The High Court ruling on Friday brings Assange one step closer to being turned over to U.S. marshals for a flight to the United States, where he would stand trial in federal court in Northern Virginia.

U.S. prosecutors allege that Assange helped hack into classified information and published thousands of pages of military records and diplomatic cables about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, thus putting the lives of allies in danger.

Assange’s supporters say he was acting as an investigative journalist who uncovered a trove of damning material about American actions abroad. They say the extradition and prosecution will undermine press freedoms in the United States.

“How can it be fair, how can it be right, how can it be possible, to extradite Julian to the very country which plotted to kill him?” Moris said, in reference to a Yahoo News report that members of the Trump administration had discussed kidnapping Assange or having him assassinated.

“We will appeal this decision at the earliest possible moment,” Moris said.

In January, a British judge ruled that Assange should not be extradited to the United States because he would be at high risk of suicide.

The U.S. government appealed that decision, suggesting that the psychiatrist who examined him was biased and that Assange’s mental health was not a barrier to extradition.

Assange was charged under the Trump administration with violating the Espionage Act, the first time U.S. federal prosecutors have targeted not just the source but the publisher of classified information.

Chelsea Manning, the Army private who shared secret diplomatic and military information with WikiLeaks in 2010, was released from prison under President Barack Obama but spent roughly a year in jail for refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating Assange.

Under President Biden, the Justice Department assured the British courts that Assange can be put on trial in the United States despite his mental health issues.

The U.S. government in October promised the British courts that if Assange were convicted, he would not be sent to the highest-security U.S. prison or automatically be placed in solitary confinement. He also could seek to serve his sentence in his native Australia.

The British High Court sided with the Americans, and Judge Timothy Holroyde said the assurances offered over the conditions of Assange’s incarceration in the United States were both “sufficient” and “solemn undertakings,” promised from one government to another.

Assange’s defense attorneys maintained that the U.S. assurances could not be trusted.

“It is highly disturbing that a U.K. court has overturned a decision not to extradite Julian Assange, accepting vague assurances by the United States government, which has reportedly plotted to kidnap or even assassinate Mr. Assange, that if Mr. Assange is extradited he will be provided appropriate care and not be held in a super-maximum facility,” U.S.-based defense attorney Barry Pollack said.

By the time he was charged in the United States under seal in 2017, Assange had spent six years living in Ecuador’s embassy in London out of fear that he would be extradited to Sweden for a sexual assault investigation and ultimately to the United States. The Ecuadoran government expelled him from the diplomatic compound in 2019, and he was promptly arrested by British police.

The Justice Department began investigating Assange in 2010 but under Obama decided that any prosecution would create a dangerous precedent of pursuing news organizations. The Espionage Act has been used to prosecute government employees and contractors who share classified information with the news media, but never before against a publisher of such information.

In their indictment of Assange, prosecutors took pains to distinguish him from traditional journalists, saying that he had encouraged illegal hacking and recording for personal reasons, and that he knowingly put U.S.-allied people at risk by publishing their names.

“Today’s win by the United States in the U.K. appellate court brings one step closer to justice a man who allegedly posted the names of individuals helping this country in a war zone, thereby putting them at serious risk,” said John Demers, who was assistant attorney general for national security in the Trump administration and whose prosecutors brought the case. “The Justice Department should be commended for seeing this case through. Those who defended his actions as journalism do a great disservice to a noble profession.”

Press freedom groups dismissed those distinctions as insufficient protection for journalists.

“We continue to have profound concerns about the press-freedom implications of this prosecution,” Jameel Jaffer, the executive director at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, said in a statement Friday. “The Trump administration should never have filed this indictment, and we call on the Biden administration again to withdraw it.”

The group Reporters Without Borders also condemned the decision that Assange can be extradited, saying he would face possible life imprisonment “for publishing information in the public interest.”

The group called for the U.S. government “to drop its more than decade-long case against him once and for all,” in line with its commitment to protect media freedoms.

Weiner reported from Washington. Ellen Nakashima in Washington contributed to this report.

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