British Judges to Rule on US Extradition of WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange

London — British judges are set to rule whether Julian Assange, the founder of the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks, will be extradited to the United States after he launched a last-ditch legal bid this week to block the order, the latest chapter in a legal battle stretching back nearly 14 years.

U.S. prosecutors are seeking Assange’s extradition in relation to 18 federal charges relating to allegations of hacking and theft of classified material, after Wikileaks published a trove of stolen U.S. diplomatic cables and military documents in 2010 relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Reserved judgement

The two-day hearing at the High Court in London concluded Wednesday and the two senior judges hearing the case are expected to deliver a ruling in the coming days or weeks. “We will reserve our decision,” judge Victoria Sharp said. It is unclear when she and fellow judge Jeremy Johnson will issue their decision.

Julian Assange’s supporters staged demonstrations outside the London court and in cities across the world, with protestors marching on U.S. embassies to demand Assange’s release.

Assange was not present at the High Court due to his poor health, and he did not appear via video link.

Assange’s defense

His defense lawyers argued the extradition warrant was politically motivated and that Assange was simply doing his job as a journalist by publishing the stolen U.S. files, according to Simon Crowther, a legal adviser for the human rights group Amnesty International, which is campaigning for the extradition order to be blocked.

“Firstly, they pointed out this is something that journalists do all the time: you receive classified material as journalists from confidential sources and you publish it when it’s in the public interest, particularly when it covers issues such as war crimes, crimes against humanity, accusations of torture, extrajudicial execution,” Crowther said.

“So, Julian Assange’s lawyers were able to point to legal arguments and found legal precedent that showed that this is political action that journalists take. And as a result, they say it’s outside of the extradition treaty between the U.S. and the U.K.,” he added.

Crowther said the second argument the lawyers made is that Assange’s actions were protected under guarantees of freedom of expression.

Press freedom

Press freedom campaigners have called for the United States to drop the charges against Assange and for him to be released from the high-security Belmarsh prison in London. Rebecca Vincent, the director of campaigns at Reporters Without Borders, said Assange would not get a fair trial in the United States.

“The publication by WikiLeaks in 2010 of the leaked classified documents exposed information that was in the public interest and informed journalism around the world. The prosecutor and other US officials have stated that as a foreign national, Assange will not be afforded First Amendment protections. Combined with the fact that the Espionage Act has no public interest defense, that means he cannot get a fair trial,” Vincent told VOA in a statement.

US prosecutors

U.S. prosecutors insist that Assange would receive a fair trial. In past hearings, British judges have also ruled that Assange would receive fair treatment under the U.S. judicial system.

Clair Dobbin, one of the lawyers representing the U.S. government, argued that Assange had encouraged people to steal documents, and that the published material contained unredacted names of U.S. sources, putting their lives at risk. She told the court this week that Assange had published them “indiscriminately” without redactions, and alleged that his actions were “unprecedented” and did not constitute journalism.

Assange could not therefore be “treated as akin to an ordinary journalist or Wikileaks akin to an ordinary publisher,” she said.

WikiLeaks cables

In 2010, WikiLeaks published a trove of diplomatic cables relating to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that had been stolen by the U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. Assange said Manning’s leaks exposed abuses by the United States military, including potential war crimes.

Assange was first arrested in Britain in 2010 on unrelated allegations of rape and sexual assault in Sweden. He jumped bail and sought refuge inside the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he stayed for seven years.

Sweden later dropped the charges. However, Assange was evicted from the Ecuadorian embassy in 2019 and imprisoned for breaching bail.

The British government signed an extradition order to the United States in June 2022, after successive failed legal challenges by Assange.

‘Life in danger’

Assange’s wife Stella has repeatedly claimed that the 52-year-old’s life is in danger if he is extradited to the U.S. “It’s an attack on all journalists, all over the world. It’s an attack on the truth and an attack on the public’s right to know. Julian is a political prisoner, and his life is at risk,” she told reporters outside the High Court as the hearing began this week.

In previous legal challenges, Assange’s lawyers unsuccessfully sought to block the extradition on claims that the U.S. prison system would constitute a risk to his life, potentially causing him to commit suicide.

“If he was extradited to the U.S., Julian Assange could be held in solitary confinement – prolonged solitary confinement. And that constitutes a violation of the (convention on the) prohibition of torture,” Amnesty’s Simon Crowther told VOA.

U.S. authorities have disputed the notion that Assange would inevitably be held in solitary confinement.

Prison term

If he is found guilty in the U.S., Assange’s lawyers say he could face a prison sentence of up to 175 years, but a term of 30 to 40 years was more likely. U.S. prosecutors have said he would serve no more than 63 months.

The Australian parliament last week called for Assange, who holds Australian citizenship, to be allowed to return to his homeland in a motion supported by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

If Assange wins his case at the British High Court, a full appeal hearing will be held. If his legal bid fails, the case could be taken to the European Court of Human Rights. However, Britain could seek to extradite Assange to the United States before European judges could rule on the case.

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