British Court Grants Julian Assange Appeal on Extradition to US

Assange Wins Right to Appeal Extradition on Free Speech Grounds

by Faruk Imamovic
British Court Grants Julian Assange Appeal on Extradition to US
© Getty Images/Carl Court

In a significant development in the long-standing legal battle involving WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, a British court has allowed Assange to appeal his extradition to the United States. This ruling by the High Court in London permits Assange to challenge the extradition order on grounds of freedom of speech and expression, marking another twist in the complex saga surrounding the controversial figure.

A Legal Battle Reignited

The decision was handed down by judges Victoria Sharp and Jeremy Johnson following a two-hour hearing. Assange, who was not present due to health issues, has been embroiled in legal disputes over his extradition for several years. The court's latest decision enables Assange to appeal the assurances provided by the US government regarding his treatment and trial conditions if extradited.

In May 2023, the UK High Court had requested more detailed assurances from the US, seeking clarity on whether Assange would have protections for free speech, if his Australian nationality would affect his trial, and if he would face the death penalty. While Assange’s legal team did not contest the US government's assurance against the death penalty, they argued that the other assurances were insufficient.

This ruling represents a partial victory for Assange and indicates that the legal proceedings will continue for some time. Assange faces 18 charges in the US, primarily under the Espionage Act, related to the publication of classified information about the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Conviction could lead to a sentence of up to 175 years in prison, though US prosecutors have suggested a maximum of five years.

The Charges and Controversies

Assange's legal troubles began when US prosecutors alleged that he overstepped his role as a journalist by offering assistance to Chelsea Manning, a former Army intelligence analyst, in cracking a password to access a classified Defense Department network. Manning was arrested in 2010 for leaking a video of a US airstrike in Baghdad, infamously known as “Collateral Murder,” showing a helicopter attack killing at least 12 civilians, including two Reuters journalists.

Manning was convicted in 2013 on multiple charges under the Espionage Act and a computer hacking offense. She was sentenced to 35 years in prison, although her sentence was commuted by President Barack Obama in 2017.

Outcome Of Julian Assanges Appeal Against Extradition To The U.S.
Outcome Of Julian Assanges Appeal Against Extradition To The U.S.© Getty Images/Peter Nicholls

Assange sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden over unrelated missconduct assault allegations, which he denied and were later dropped. In 2019, he was forcibly removed from the embassy and has been held in Belmarsh prison since, pending the completion of his extradition hearings.

Initially, a British court barred Assange’s extradition in 2021 due to concerns over his mental health and potential risk of suicide. However, this decision was overturned on appeal after the US provided additional assurances about his treatment in prison.

The Implications for Press Freedom

The case against Assange has raised significant concerns among free press advocates and human rights organizations. Critics argue that prosecuting Assange under the Espionage Act could set a dangerous precedent for journalists worldwide. The Espionage Act, enacted during World War I, does not distinguish between journalists and non-journalists, potentially criminalizing the publication of classified information even when it serves the public interest.

Organizations such as Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists have voiced strong opposition to Assange's extradition. They argue that his prosecution could have a chilling effect on investigative journalism and the ability of reporters to inform the public about governmental actions.

"The US simply cannot guarantee his safety and well-being as it has also failed to do for the hundreds of thousands of people currently imprisoned in the US," said Julia Hall, Amnesty International’s expert on criminal justice in Europe. This sentiment is echoed by other advocates who worry that Assange’s extradition could undermine the fundamental freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment.

Kristinn Hrafnsson, WikiLeaks editor-in-chief, emphasized that the issue of whether Assange can defend himself as a journalist should be straightforward. However, US prosecutors argue that the applicability of the First Amendment in this case is within the jurisdiction of US courts.

Looking Ahead

As the legal battle continues, the implications of Assange’s case extend beyond his personal fate. The outcome could influence the future of press freedom, particularly the protection of journalists who expose governmental misconduct. The case highlights the tension between national security interests and the public’s right to know, a balance that democratic societies strive to maintain.

The coming months will be critical in determining whether Julian Assange will be extradited to the US and how this high-profile case will shape the landscape of investigative journalism. The decision will undoubtedly have far-reaching consequences for the principles of free speech and the role of the press in holding power to account.