A British court has ruled that Julian Assange, the 50-year-old founder of the whistleblowing website Wikileaks, can be extradited to the United States to face charges of hacking and theft, which combined could result in a jail term of up to 175 years.
The ruling by British high court judges Friday overturned a lower district court decision in January, blocking Assange’s extradition. In that earlier decision, Judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled there was a high risk that Julian Assange would commit suicide. U.S. prosecutors appealed, and the high court ruled in their favor Friday.
High court Judge Ian Burnett told the court, “That risk is in our judgment excluded by the assurances which are offered. It follows that we are satisfied that, if the assurances had been before the judge, she would have answered the relevant question differently… That conclusion is sufficient to determine this appeal in the U.S.A.’s favor.”
The assurances were based on the conditions under which Assange would be detained, said Marcy Wheeler, an American journalist and author on national security and civil liberty issues.
“The assurances they gave to the U.K. that Assange would not be subjected to basically isolation or solitary confinement, unless he does something new to merit it – those were sufficient to address the concerns raised by (the previous judge) Vanessa Baraitser about Assange’s likelihood to commit suicide in U.S. jails,” Wheeler told VOA.
Supporters of Assange and Wikileaks reacted with dismay. In an emotional speech outside court, Stella Morris, Assange’s fiancée and mother of his child, said the U.S. assurances were “inherently unreliable.”
“The High Court decided against Julian on this occasion on the basis of political assurances, non-assurances that the U.S. has given to the UK government. I say non-assurances, Amnesty International says non-assurances. Amnesty International has analyzed these assurances and have said that they are inherently unreliable. They incorporate the possibility of breaking those assurances in their very wording,” Morris told reporters outside court.
“Julian represents the fundamentals of what it means to live in a free society, of what it means to have press freedom, of what it means for journalists to do their jobs without being afraid of spending the rest of their lives in prison. The UK imprisons journalists. They're imprisoning Julian on behalf of a foreign power which is taking an abusive, vindictive prosecution against a journalist, and this is what it's about.” Morris added.
Judges will now hand the decision on whether to extradite Assange to Britain’s Home Secretary, Priti Patel. However, defense lawyers can appeal the ruling.
“They’ve also talked about appealing the underlying decision that ruled this did not impinge on journalism. It’s unclear whether they’re going to do that next. They also could appeal to the European courts,” said analyst Wheeler.
Recent revelations could be used by the defense in their appeal. A former Wikileaks insider turned FBI informer has said that he fabricated evidence used by the prosecution. And in September, Yahoo News published a story alleging that the CIA had plotted to kidnap or even kill Assange in 2017.
Any appeals must be lodged within the next two weeks, although it’s possible judges would reject any further hearings on the case.
Assange and his supporters argue the freedom of the press is at stake. In 2010 and 2011, he oversaw the publication by Wikileaks of hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables and military reports relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which were leaked by former U.S. soldier Chelsea Manning, then known as Bradley Manning. Assange says the leak exposed abuses by the U.S. military.
Assange faces 18 U.S. federal charges relating to allegations of hacking, theft of classified material, and the disclosure of the identities of U.S. informants, which prosecutors say put their lives at risk.
There is more to the prosecution case, says Wheeler. “One of the things Baraitser said in deciding that he was not protected as a journalist is that at the very same time he was soliciting these files from Chelsea Manning and offering to crack a password in doing it, he was also hacking targets in Iceland, he ultimately hacked – or attempted to hack – a Wikileaks dissident. There’s a lot in there that Wikileaks doesn’t like to talk about because it has nothing to do with journalism,” Wheeler told VOA.
Press freedom groups criticized the high court decision. “We condemn today’s decision, which will prove historic for all the wrong reasons. We fully believe that Julian Assange has been targeted for his contributions to journalism, and we defend this case because of its dangerous implications for the future of journalism and press freedom around the world. It is time to put a stop to this more than decade-long persecution once and for all. It is time to free Assange,” said Christophe Deloire, the secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders.