WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange extradition decision delayed by UK court, allowing time for appeal

ByKevin Shalvey and Patrick Reevell ABCNews logo
Tuesday, March 26, 2024
Julian Assange extradition decision delayed by UK court
Who is Julian Assange? The WikiLeaks founder's extradition decision was delayed by a UK court, allowing time for an appeal.

LONDON -- A court in the United Kingdom on Tuesday ordered a delay in the possible extradition of Julian Assange, allowing the WikiLeaks founder to continue his appeal fighting a transfer to the United States to face charges in connection with one of the largest thefts of classified government information in American history

Assange is accused of conspiring with Chelsea Manning, who was then an intelligence analyst in the U.S. Army, in a leak of hundreds of thousands of classified documents, including about 250,000 U.S. Department of State cables. WikiLeaks began publishing those documents in 2010.

The U.S. Department of Justice unsealed in 2019 an 18-count indictment accusing Assange of violating the Espionage Act by allegedly obtaining, receiving and disclosing classified information.

The U.K. court on Tuesday said an extradition could go ahead if the U.S. is able to provide sufficient assurances that Assange's case will be considered under the full protections of the First Amendment and that he will not be subjected to the death penalty.

The court noted that U.S. prosecutors have also said the First Amendment may not apply to Assange as a non-American citizen. The court said in that case extradition may not be permitted.

The unsealing of the U.S. charges followed Assange's arrest after he spent seven years living in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. He's been incarcerated for the last five years in Belmarsh High Security Prison, a maximum-security facility in South London.

The British government approved the extradition after a hearing in London in June 2022.

Alice Jill Edwards, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, said in February she had concerns about Assange's mental and physical wellbeing in prison. She said Assange "suffers from a depressive disorder."

"Any extradition to the United States is very likely to exacerbate his medical underlying conditions -- and there is a very real risk of suicide," she said, according to U.N. News.

Stella Assange, a longtime partner who married Assange in 2022, added that the WikiLeaks founder had "no prospect" for a fair trial under the U.S. court system.

A U.K. Home Office spokesperson said a statement when the extradition was approved that the U.K. courts had not found that an extradition to the U.S. would "be oppressive, unjust or an abuse of process."

The spokesperson added, "Nor have they found that extradition would be incompatible with his human rights, including his right to a fair trial and to freedom of expression, and that whilst in the US he will be treated appropriately, including in relation to his health."

Assange, an Australian citizen, had continued appealing the decision. A hearing in February in London's High Court was expected to be his final chance within the U.K. courts to stop the overseas transfer, although he may choose to continue his appeal with the European Court of Human Rights.

The U.K. court on Tuesday rejected six other grounds on which Assange had challenged his extradition.

SEE ALSO: Julian Assange makes last-ditch attempt in UK court to avoid extradition to US

Assange had argued he should not be extradited because the case against him is political, but the court ruled U.K. law does not forbid extradition for political crimes and that he was not being prosecuted for his political opinions.

The court also rejected Assange's argument that he would face inhumane and degrading treatment in the U.S. or that he would not receive a fair trial there, provided he received full First Amendment protection.

The court also refused to allow Assange to submit fresh evidence relating to claims the CIA had plotted to kidnap him from the Ecuadorian embassy while he was living there, saying it was not related to the extradition proceeding and that it would not have altered earlier court decisions.

The 18 charges brought against Assange carry a potential penalty of up to 175 years in prison, according to the Department of Justice. Officials said in announcing the charges that "sentences for federal crimes are typically less than the maximum penalties."

A superseding indictment issued in 2020 added allegations that Assange had conspired with the Anonymous hacking group.

WikiLeaks published in 2010 and 2011 several caches of classified U.S. documents and other leaked material. Those included a U.S. military video published in 2010 that the group described as "depicting the indiscriminate slaying of over a dozen people in the Iraqi suburb of New Baghdad -- including two Reuters news staff."

The United Kingdom had as of 2022 denied at least 25 previous extradition requests made by the United States in separate cases, according to the Home Office.

"If Julian Assange is extradited, he will die," Stella Assange said ahead of the February hearing, according to WikiLeaks.

ABC News' Guy Davies, Mark Osborne, Jon Haworth, Lucien Bruggeman, Patrick Reevell and Joe Simonetti contributed to this story.