Julian Assange staves off extradition to US for now, UK court rules

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has fended off the threat of immediate extradition to the United States after the High Court in London said the US needed to provide more assurances.

US authorities say Assange, 52, put lives at risk by publishing secret military documents and have for years been seeking his extradition on espionage charges.

At a two-day hearing last month, Assange sought permission to review the UK’s 2022 approval of his extradition to the US, arguing the case against him was politically motivated and that he would not face a fair trial.

In a ruling Tuesday, a panel of two judges said Assange, an Australian citizen, would not be extradited immediately and gave the US three weeks to give a series of assurances around Assange’s First Amendment rights and that he would not receive the death penalty.

If the US fails to give these assurances, Assange would be allowed to appeal his extradition at a further hearing in May.

Assange has fought extradition for the last five years from London’s Belmarsh prison and for seven years before that was holed up as a political refugee at the Ecuadorian embassy in the UK capital.

His case has sparked condemnation from free speech advocates who say if the extradition is allowed to go ahead it will have a chilling effect on press freedoms.

The court said on Tuesday that Assange had a “real prospect of success” on three of the nine grounds of appeal: that his extradition is incompatible with freedom of expression; that, if extradited, Assange might be prejudiced at trial due to his nationality; and that, if extradited, he would not enjoy adequate death penalty protection.

But the court refused to grant him leave to appeal on the ground that the prosecution is politically motivated.

“The judge found, on the evidence, that Mr Assange had not shown that the request was made for the purpose of prosecuting him on account of his political opinions,” it said.

It said the judge had taken account of the evidence that the CIA had planned to kidnap Assange from the Ecuadorian Embassy, but the judge “concluded that this was not related to the extradition proceedings.”

Assange is being pursued by US authorities for endangering lives by publishing confidential military records supplied by former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in 2010 and 2011.

In 2019, prosecutors in Virginia charged Assange with 18 offences including one charge of conspiracy to attempt to hack a computer in connection with the 2010 release of classified military material obtained through Manning and 17 additional counts under the Espionage Act.

The prosecution alleges that Assange goaded Manning into obtaining thousands of pages of unfiltered US diplomatic cables that potentially endangered confidential sources, Iraq war-related significant activity reports and information related to Guantanamo Bay detainees.

Each of those counts carries a potential sentence of 10 years, meaning that if convicted, Assange could be sentenced to up to 175 years in prison.

He has been fighting the request for his extradition ever since.

Assange was not present at the crucial last-ditch hearing in February as he was too “unwell” to attend, according to one of his lawyers.

His legal team had argued that the US request was in breach of their client’s human rights, politically motivated and that his work was “ordinary journalistic practice” which he shouldn’t be punished for.

They also claimed Assange was the subject of an alleged CIA assassination plot while he lived at his Ecuadorian safe haven between 2012 and 2019. “There is compelling evidence now in existence… that senior CIA and [US] administration officials requested detailed plans and drawings of [the plot],” lawyer Edward Fitzgerald said.

The allegation has never been tested evidentially but his legal team had argued that it should be considered and made part of the case.

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