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Julian Assange’s Fight Against Extradition Enters Final Stage in UK Court

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, has been held in a British prison for nearly five years while fighting a U.S. extradition order. This week’s court hearing is his last chance to be granted an appeal.

Since 2019, Julian Assange has been held in a high-security prison in southeast London, as his lawyers battle a U.S. extradition order. Now, that battle may be coming to an end.

On Tuesday, Assange’s case was brought back to a British court for a two-day hearing to determine whether he has exhausted his right to appeal within the U.K. and whether he could be one step closer to being sent to the United States.

In the U.S., Assange, 52, faces charges under the Espionage Act of 1917 that could lead to a sentence of up to 175 years in prison, according to his lawyers, although lawyers for the U.S. government had previously suggested a sentence of between four and six years. Here’s what you need to know about the long-running legal battle over his extradition and what might happen next.

Why has Assange been in a British prison for nearly five years?

The U.S. charges against Assange relate to events in 2010 when WikiLeaks released tens of thousands of secret military and diplomatic documents leaked by Chelsea Manning, an Army intelligence analyst.

These files exposed hidden diplomatic activities and included revelations about civilian deaths in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

In May 2019, during the Trump presidency, the U.S. Justice Department accused Assange of violating the Espionage Act by soliciting and publishing secret government information. These charges raise significant First Amendment issues. (The Obama administration had considered charging Assange but decided against it due to the threat to press freedom.)

Although Assange has been fighting extradition from Britain to face the U.S. charges, his life in limbo in London predates this legal battle.

In June 2012, Assange sought refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faced an investigation into unrelated allegations of sexual misconduct and rape, which were later dropped. He remained in the embassy for the next seven years.

In April 2019, he was expelled from the embassy, where he had become an unwelcome guest, and was subsequently arrested for violating his bail conditions. A few weeks later, the U.S. Justice Department unsealed an indictment charging Assange with 18 counts of violating the Espionage Act by participating in a criminal hacking conspiracy and encouraging hackers to steal classified material. (Ms. Manning was later sentenced to 35 years in prison but had her sentence commuted by President Obama after serving seven years.)This hearing is being described by Assange’s team as the “beginning of the end” of extradition challenges in UK courts.

Initially, a British judge denied the extradition order for Assange in January 2021, ruling that he was at risk of suicide if sent to a US prison. However, Britain’s High Court later overturned that decision after receiving assurances from American officials regarding his treatment. In 2022, Priti Patel, Britain’s then-home secretary, approved the extradition request.

Nevertheless, the legal challenges persisted. Assange’s legal team had an earlier appeal to Ms Patel’s order dismissed by a single judge. Now, two High Court judges will hear his final bid for an appeal in a British court.

On Tuesday, Assange’s legal team will present their case, followed by the US Justice Department’s legal team. The judges will then deliberate on the case, which could take hours, days, or even weeks, before delivering their decision.

There are several possible outcomes. The judges may allow Assange to appeal his extradition order, leading to a scheduled full appeal hearing and a potential new decision regarding his extradition.

Alternatively, if Assange’s appeal request is denied, his legal team has cautioned that he could be swiftly sent to the United States. However, his lawyers have vowed to challenge his extradition in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.

In theory, this could halt his extradition from Britain until the case is heard in Strasbourg, as Britain is obliged to adhere to the court’s judgment as a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights.

Throughout the process, Assange’s health has suffered, and human rights groups are concerned about what lies ahead.

During a recent press briefing, Stella Assange, Assange’s wife, expressed her fears for his mental and physical health, stating that his years in prison have caused premature ageing and worsened his depression.

“He is at risk every single day he remains in prison, and if he is extradited, he will die,” she said. The couple, who began their relationship while Assange was living in the Ecuadorean Embassy, have two children and regularly visit him in prison.

“Julian and I shield the children. Frankly, they don’t know,” Ms. Assange said regarding the indictment against him. “And I don’t think it’s fair for them to know what is happening.”

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