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Police officers stand guard as supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange hold placards outside The Royal Courts of Justice, Britain's High Court, in central London, on March 26.DANIEL LEAL/Getty Images

A High Court in Britain has given WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange a reprieve in his lengthy legal battle to avoid extradition to the United States to face criminal charges over the publication of thousands of classified documents.

In a ruling issued Tuesday, a pair of judges handed Mr. Assange a partial victory by raising questions about how the case against him will be adjudicated in the U.S.

The judges said U.S. prosecutors must provide three key assurances: that Mr. Assange will be able to make arguments during his trial based on the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution; that he will not face the death penalty; and that his Australian citizenship will not prejudice the proceedings.

“The First Amendment to the United States Constitution gives strong protection to freedom of expression,” the judges said in the ruling. If Mr. Assange is not allowed to rely on the First Amendment, “then it is arguable that his extradition would be incompatible” with the European Convention on Human Rights, which Britain has signed.

The judges – Adam Johnson and Victoria Sharp – also noted that U.S. prosecutors have said they may argue at trial that “foreign nationals are not entitled to protections under the First Amendment.” If that argument were made, the judges said, Mr. Assange “might be prejudiced at his trial by reason of his nationality.”

Britain’s Home Secretary has also acknowledged that Mr. Assange could face future charges that carry the death penalty, the judges found. On that basis, they added, it is arguable that Mr. Assange’s extradition would be barred under U.K. law.

If prosecutors cannot provide the assurances the judges seek, Mr. Assange will be allowed to appeal his extradition in a British court. If the assurances are provided, the judges plan to hold a hearing on May 20 to determine whether the prosecutors’ offer is satisfactory.

In a statement after the ruling, Mr. Assange’s wife, Stella Assange, said that instead of providing assurances, the U.S. government should drop the case.

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Stella Assange, the wife of Julian Assange, speaks to the media outside the Royal Courts of Justice.Leon Neal/Getty Images

“What the courts have done is to invite a political intervention from the United States to send a letter saying it’s all okay,” she told reporters. “I find this astounding. Five years into this case and the United States has managed to show the court that their case remains an attack on press freedoms, an attack on Julian’s life.”

U.S. prosecutors have charged Mr. Assange, 52, with computer hacking and 17 violations of the Espionage Act, a century-old law that prohibits anyone from unlawfully obtaining and publishing information relating to national defence. If convicted, he could face up to 175 years in jail.

All the charges relate to the publication by WikiLeaks of more than 250,000 secret military cables, reports and briefing notes in 2010 and 2011. The material exposed atrocities by U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq and led to an outcry over American foreign policy.

British courts have deemed Mr. Assange a flight risk. He has been in Belmarsh Prison ever since his indictment in 2019. Before that, he claimed asylum and spent seven years in the Ecuadorean embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he was being investigated over allegations of sexual assault. The case was eventually dropped, but Mr. Assange was jailed in Britain for skipping bail and then held after U.S. prosecutors filed charges.

In 2020, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser blocked Mr. Assange’s extradition on humanitarian grounds. She ruled that if convicted in the U.S., he would be imprisoned in a supermaximum facility in Florence, Colo., called ADX Florence, where isolation is extreme and mental-health services are limited. The judge cited evidence that Mr. Assange suffered from depression and had persistent thoughts of suicide.

That ruling was overturned a year later by an appellate panel of three High Court justices after the U.S. Department of Justice provided assurances that Mr. Assange would not be sent to ADX Florence and would not be subjected to restrictive solitary confinement measures reserved for prisoners convicted of terrorism and national security violations.

Mr. Assange’s legal team filed a further appeal to block the extradition.

His supporters insist the case against him concerns freedom of the press and that, if he were convicted, it would have a chilling impact on all journalists.

Lawyers representing the U.S. have argued that the case is not about press freedom and that Mr. Assange put lives in danger by publicizing the names of sources. They added that he also helped former U.S. Army intelligence officer Chelsea Manning steal thousands of documents.

Ms. Manning was convicted of 20 espionage offences for stealing secret military documents and passing them on to WikiLeaks. She spent seven years in a U.S. prison before then-President Barack Obama commuted her sentence in 2017.

According to reports last month in The Wall Street Journal, U.S. prosecutors have considered a plea deal that would allow Mr. Assange to plead guilty to a reduced offence of mishandling classified information. He would then be sentenced to time served.

Mr. Assange’s lawyers have said they have been given no indication that a plea deal was coming.

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