A British appeals court has cleared the way for the extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the United States, where he faces more than a dozen criminal charges related to espionage.
The ruling released Friday overturned a lower court decision that blocked Mr. Assange’s extradition on humanitarian grounds. In that ruling, issued last January, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser said that if convicted in the U.S., Mr. Assange would be imprisoned in a supermaximum facility in Florence, Colo., called ADX Florence, where isolation is extreme and mental-health services are limited.
“The mental condition of Mr. Assange is such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the United States of America,” the judge said, noting that Mr. Assange suffers from “clinical depression and persistent thoughts of suicide.”
The U.S. Department of Justice, or DOJ, appealed that decision and offered assurances that Mr. Assange would not be imprisoned at ADX Florence or held according to Special Administrative Measures, or SAMS, restrictive solitary confinement reserved for terrorism and national security prisoners. The DOJ also said it would agree to transfer Mr. Assange, who is originally from Australia, to an Australian prison to serve his sentence.
On Friday, an appellate panel of three High Court judges said Justice Baraitser should have notified the DOJ of her view before issuing her ruling “to afford it the opportunity to offer assurances to the court.” The panel added that “the U.S.A. has now provided the United Kingdom with a package of assurances.”
“There is no reason why this court should not accept the assurances as meaning what they say. There is no basis for assuming that the U.S.A. has not given the assurances in good faith,” the judges added.
In a statement after Friday’s ruling, Mr. Assange’s fiancée, Stella Morris, called the appeal decision a “grave miscarriage of justice” and said defence lawyers would file an appeal. “How can it be fair, how can it be right, how can it be possible?” she said of the decision to extradite Mr. Assange.
Kristinn Hrafnsson, the editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, said on Friday the case against Mr. Assange was an assault on press freedom. “Julian’s life is once more under grave threat, and so is the right of journalists to publish material that governments and corporations find inconvenient. This is about the right of a free press to publish without being threatened by a bullying superpower.”
Friday’s ruling is a major victory for U.S. prosecutors, who first charged Mr. Assange in 2017 with computer hacking. They added 17 violations of the Espionage Act to the indictment in 2019, invoking a 103-year-old law that prohibits anyone from unlawfully obtaining and publishing information relating to national defence.
All of 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. Mr. Assange and his supporters have argued that he acted like any other journalist and that the leaks served the public interest.
Mr. Assange, 50, has long feared facing criminal charges in the U.S. In 2012, he sought refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London after a British court upheld his extradition to Sweden to stand trial for sexual assault. He denied the Swedish charges, but felt certain the Swedes would turn him over to U.S. prosecutors.
He was forced out of the embassy in 2019 when Ecuador said he violated the conditions of asylum. London police arrested him for skipping bail and, although the Swedish case was later dropped, Mr. Assange was sentenced to 50 weeks in prison by a British judge for the bail violation. He has remained in jail throughout the extradition process.
U.S. prosecutors have always insisted that the case against Mr. Assange has nothing to do with freedom of the press. They argue the charges focus on his conduct in helping former U.S. Army intelligence officer Chelsea Manning hack into government computers to steal the secret military documents. Ms. Manning received a 35-year sentence in 2013 for violating the Espionage Act, but the jail term was commuted by then president Barack Obama just before he left office in 2017.
The DOJ has said Mr. Assange exposed the identities of more than 100 government sources, something other media outlets did not do because it would put the informants’ lives in danger.
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