‘Beginning of the end’ as Assange case returns to court

The files Assange's WikiLeaks published exposed hidden diplomatic dealings and included revelations about civilian deaths in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Last Updated 22 February 2024, 03:11 IST

London: Since 2019, Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, has been held in a high security prison in southeast London while his lawyers fight a US extradition order. Now, that particular battle may be nearing its end.

On Tuesday, Assange’s case returned to a British court for a two-day hearing that will determine whether he has exhausted his right to appeal within the UK and whether he could be one step closer to being sent to the United States. At the conclusion of the hearing, it was still unclear when a decision would be made.

Assange did not appear before the court, declining to attend virtually because of ill health, according to his lawyers, but dozens of protesters gathered outside, demanding his release.

In the United States, Assange, 52, faces charges under the Espionage Act of 1917 that could amount to a sentence of up to 175 years in prison, his lawyers say, although lawyers for the US government had previously said that he was more likely to be sentenced to between four and six years. Here’s what to know about the long-running legal battle over his extradition and what could happen next.

Assange has been in a British prison for nearly five years. Here’s why.

The US charges against Assange date to events in 2010, when WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of secret military and diplomatic documents leaked by Chelsea Manning, an Army intelligence analyst.

The files exposed hidden diplomatic dealings and included revelations about civilian deaths in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In May 2019, during the Trump presidency, the US Justice Department accused Assange of violating the Espionage Act by soliciting and publishing secret government information, charges that raise profound First Amendment issues. (The Obama administration had considered charging Assange but decided against it because of the threat to press freedom.)

While Assange for years has been fighting efforts to extradite him from Britain to face the US charges, his life in limbo in London goes back even further.

In June 2012, Assange entered the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to escape extradition to Sweden, where he faced an inquiry into unrelated allegations of sexual misconduct and rape that were later dropped. He stayed in the embassy for the next seven years.

In April 2019, he was thrown out of the embassy, where he had become an unwelcome guest, and was promptly arrested after skipping bail. Weeks later, the US Justice Department unsealed an indictment which charged Assange with 18 counts of violating the Espionage Act, by participating in a criminal hacking conspiracy and by encouraging hackers to steal secret material. (Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison in 2013, but was released in 2017 when President Barack Obama commuted her sentence.)

This hearing is the “beginning of the end” of extradition challenges in UK courts, Assange’s team says.

The extradition order for Assange was initially denied by a British judge who ruled in January 2021 that Assange was at risk of suicide if sent to a US prison. Britain’s High Court later reversed that decision after assurances from US officials about his treatment. Priti Patel, Britain’s then-home secretary, approved the extradition request in 2022.

But the legal challenges continued. Assange’s legal team had an earlier request for an appeal to Patel’s order rejected by a single judge. Now, two High Court judges will hear his final bid for an appeal in a British court.

Assange’s legal team outlined its case Tuesday, followed by the US Justice Department’s legal team Wednesday.

Edward Fitzgerald, a lawyer for Assange told Judges Victoria Sharp and Jeremy Johnson that “Mr. Assange was exposing serious criminality” by publishing the leaked documents. He also told the hearing that during the Trump administration, CIA officials had discussed plans to kill or kidnap Assange while he was sheltering in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London — an accusation reported by Yahoo News in 2021 and denied at the time by the Trump administration.

It was the first time the accusation had been mentioned in a hearing on Assange’s extradition, and his legal team said they had proof of the discussions. Lawyers for the US government argued that Assange will have a fair and public hearing, and said his publication of the leaks had put lives at risk.

The judges are now considering those arguments before announcing their decision, which could come in hours, days or weeks.

And there are a few potential outcomes. The judges could allow Assange to appeal his extradition order, in which case a full appeal hearing would be scheduled, opening the door to a new decision about his extradition.

Or, if Assange’s request to appeal is denied, he could be sent swiftly to a plane bound for the United States, his legal team has said. But his lawyers have vowed to challenge his extradition in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.

Theoretically, that could block his extradition from Britain until the case was heard in Strasbourg because Britain is obliged to follow the court’s judgment as a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights.

The process has taken its toll on Assange’s health. And rights groups expressed fears about what comes next.

Stella Assange, Assange’s wife, said during a press briefing last week that her husband, who has been suffering from depression, has aged prematurely during his years in prison, and she fears for his mental and physical health.

“His life is at risk every single day he stays in prison, and if he’s extradited, he will die,” she said. The pair, who began a relationship while Julian Assange lived in the Ecuadorian Embassy, have two children, and they regularly visit Julian Assange in prison.

“Julian and I protect the children. They don’t know frankly,” Stella Assange said about the indictment against him. “And I don’t think it’s fair on them to know what is going on.”

Alice Jill Edwards, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, has urged Britain to halt Assange’s extradition, citing fears that, if extradited, he would be at risk of treatment amounting to torture or other forms of punishment. In a statement earlier this month, she pointed to risks that he could face “prolonged solitary confinement, despite his precarious mental health status, and to receive a potentially disproportionate sentence.”

The Australian government has also called for Assange, an Australian citizen, to be sent to his home country, where its Parliament passed a motion last week calling for his release. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said he had discussed the matter in a meeting last fall with President Joe Biden, and Thursday, Albanese told the Australian Parliament “it is appropriate for us to put our very strong view that those countries need to take into account the need for this to be concluded.”

Rights groups like Amnesty International and advocates for press freedom, including Reporters Without Borders, have long called for the US charges against Assange to be dropped and the extradition order canceled.

Rebecca Vincent, the director of international campaigns for Reporters Without Borders, said in a statement before the hearing that the US could drop the extradition request or consider Assange’s time in Belmarsh prison as time served.

“None of this is inevitable,” Vincent said in a statement before the hearing. “No one should face such treatment for publishing information in the public interest.”

(Published 22 February 2024, 03:11 IST)

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