UK opens door to Assange extradition to US on spying charges

FILE - Julian Assange, the 40-year-old WikiLeaks founder, arrives at the Supreme Court in London, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012. Assange's legal team is making a final effort at Britain's Supreme Court to avoid his extradition to Sweden. Assange is wanted by Swedish authorities over sex crimes allegations stemming from a visit to the country in 2010. He denies any wrongdoing.(AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File)

LONDON — A British appellate court opened the door at the end of last week for Julian Assange to be extradited to the United States on spying charges by overturning a lower court decision that the WikiLeaks founder’s mental health was too fragile to withstand incarceration in America. 

The High Court in London ruled that U.S. assurances about Assange’s detention, received after the lower court decision, were enough to guarantee he would be treated humanely. Assange’s lawyers say they will ask to appeal. 

In the ruling, the High Court directed the lower court judge to send the extradition request to Home Secretary Priti Patel, who would make the final decision on whether to send Assange to the U.S. for trial. 

“There is no reason why this court should not accept the assurances as meaning what they say,” a two-judge panel of the High Court said in its ruling. 

Since WikiLeaks began publishing classified documents more than a decade ago, Assange has become a lightning rod for both criticism and veneration. 

Some see him as a dangerous secret-spiller who endangered the lives of informers and others who helped the U.S. in war zones. Others say WikiLeaks has publicized official malfeasance that governments wanted to keep secret. 

Both views have been debated as Assange has sought his freedom — and to evade the Americans. 

The U.S. has asked British authorities to extradite Assange so he can stand trial on 17 charges of espionage and one charge of computer misuse linked to WikiLeaks’ publication of thousands of leaked military and diplomatic documents. 

Assange’s fiancée, Stella Moris, called Friday’s decision a “grave miscarriage of justice” that threatens the rights of journalists everywhere to do their jobs without fear of retaliation by governments that don’t like what they publish. She said Assange’s lawyers would seek to appeal. 

“We will fight,” Moris said outside the court, where supporters chanted and waved banners demanding Assange’s release. “Every generation has an epic fight to fight and this is ours, because Julian represents the fundamentals of what it means to live in a free society.” 

Assange, 50, is currently being held at the high-security Belmarsh Prison in London. The High Court ordered that he remain in custody pending the outcome of the extradition case. 

Assange has been in detention since he was arrested in April 2019 for skipping bail during a separate legal battle. Before that, he spent seven years holed up inside Ecuador’s Embassy in London. Assange sought protection in the embassy in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden to face allegations of rape and sexual assault. 

If convicted, Assange won’t be imprisoned at the “supermax” penitentiary in Florence, Colorado, the highest-security prison in the United States, American authorities promised the court. They also pledged that he wouldn’t be held under “special administrative measures,” which can include segregation from other prisoners and the loss of privileges such as visits, correspondence and use of the telephone.  

They also said he would be eligible to serve any prison sentence in his native Australia. 

American prosecutors say Assange unlawfully helped U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning steal classified diplomatic cables and military files that WikiLeaks later published, putting lives at risk.  

The charges Assange faces carry a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison, though lawyers for the U.S. have told British courts that the longest sentence ever imposed for such an offense was five years and three months. 

Barry J. Pollack, a lawyer for Assange in the U.S., called Friday’s decision “highly disturbing,” citing unfounded allegations that the U.S. plotted to kidnap or kill his client. 

“The U.K. court reached this decision without considering whether extradition is appropriate when the United States is pursuing charges against him that could result in decades in prison, based on his having reported truthful information about newsworthy issues such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said.