Thursday 27 January 2022
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Assange could be extradited to US

The Wikileaks founder is wanted in the US on charges like breaking the espionage law, but the outcome of his trial in the UK would determine his extradition

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange today came one step closer to facing charges in the US of spying and conspiring to hack into government computers after Washington won an appeal over his extradition in a British court. “This is the judgment of the court,” said Lord Chief Lord Burnett in Friday’s ruling.

Assange’s legal team has said it would appeal against the ruling.

Assange, 50, is wanted in the US to face trial on 18 charges, including breaking espionage laws after WikiLeaks published thousands of secret US files in 2010.

The WikiLeaks founder, who is currently lodged at Belmarsh prison in London, has denied any wrongdoing. He did not attend the hearing.

The development comes after US authorities brought a high court challenge against a ruling made in January by then-district judge Vanessa Baraitser, who said that Assange should not be extradited to the US due to concerns over his mental health and risk of suicide.

WikiLeaks and Assange burst onto the international scene with the release of footage from a 2007 airstrike in Baghdad that resulted in the deaths of two Reuters journalists, among others.

The video, which WikiLeaks released under the title “Collateral Murder,” helped feed a growing sense of unease among Americans about the protracted wars in and Afghanistan and secret practices of the military.

WikiLeaks gained more attention in 2010 after it published scores of confidential US records, which American officials said put lives at risk.

The leak, which saw the release of classified defence documents on the wars in and Afghanistan, as well as on detainees at Guantanamo Bay, sparked an international outcry.

The Obama administration did not indict Assange in the immediate aftermath of the leak, but the WikiLeaks founder was later charged with violating the Espionage Act under former President Donald Trump.

Chelsea Manning, the member who shared information with WikiLeaks was released under the prior Obama administration after spending around a year behind bars for refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating Assange.

The defence has told the court that even though the US had assured reasonable treatment if the WikiLeaks founder was extradited, there is still a risk that he could take his own life.

They urged the court to ignore assurances from the US that their client would not be subject to harsh detention conditions, known as Special Administrative Measures.

Even if he was not subjected to such conditions, Assange’s lawyers said evidence heard during the original extradition hearing suggested he would be detained in “conditions of extreme isolation” that could impact his mental health.

In Friday’s ruling, Burnett said, “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.”

Responding to today’s decision, Stella Moris, Assange’s fiancée, told reporters after the verdict: “We will appeal this decision at the earliest possible moment.”

The ruling was “dangerous and misguided” and a “grave miscarriage of justice,” she told reporters.

Assange’s legal team confirmed that they would be seeking permission to appeal the decision to the Supreme court. The application to do so must be made in writing within 14 days.

Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, also condemned the decision.

Noting that it came on International Human Rights Day, the day the UN General adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, Melzer said the decision was “disgraceful.”

“He’s actually being extradited to the US based on diplomatic assurances that, really, are not worth the paper that they’re written on,” he told NBC News in a phone interview.

Melzer said he believed Western governments were looking to make an example out of Assange.

“The Western states are simply afraid of the business model of WikiLeaks, which is really enabling whistleblowing on a large unprecedented scale on the internet,” he said. “I fear this is what the states are afraid of.”

Nick Vamos, a partner at Peters & Peters Solicitors LLP in London and a former head of extradition at the Crown Prosecution Service, said he understood the court’s decision.

“The assurances (from the US) were very clear,” he said, adding that they “directly addressed” concerns about Assange’s risk of suicide in a US prison.”

Given that the UK “has a very high level of trust” with the US, he said it was unlikely that the court would reject the those assurances.

Sweden had previously sought Assange’s extradition from the UK over alleged sex crimes.

He was expected to be sent to Sweden in 2012, but fled to the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he spent seven years before being forced out in April 2019 and jailed for breaching British bail conditions.

By that point, the Swedish case against him had already been dropped, but US authorities demanded his extradition.

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