Explainer: Assange Launches Final Bid to Avoid Extradition to US Features
Explainer: Assange Launches Final Bid to Avoid Extradition to US

Publisher and activist Julian Assange appealed to London’s High Court this week in a last-ditch effort to avoid extradition to the US to face espionage charges. Following the hearing which spanned Tuesday and Wednesday, judges will consider whether Assange can appeal an earlier ruling ordering his extradition from the UK to the US, where he faces an 18-count indictment accusing him of violating the US Espionage Act through the release of droves of classified information through his website WikiLeaks.

As the hearing continued inside the Royal Courts of Justice in Central London, hundreds of supporters and protesters gathered in the rain outside to call for his release. This was to be expected; since the heyday of WikiLeak’s, the case has proven broadly divisive, fostering widespread debate about the relative limits of free speech and expression on the one hand, and naitonal security on the other. In this explainer, we explore the background of the case, consider what’s at stake for Assange, and outline some of the overarching issues that have shrouded the case for years.

What is WikiLeaks?

Founded by Assange in 2006, WikiLeaks is a media organization that became a household name for its publication of millions of analyses and documents, many of which were classified. Though the entity continues to refer to itself in the present tense, as of the time of writing, Wikileaks does not appear to have updated its website since 2021.

What is the basis of the US’ legal pursuit of Assange?

According to the indictment, “beginning in late 2009, Assange and WikiLeaks actively solicited United States classified information, including by publishing a list of ‘Most Wanted Leaks’ that sought, among other things, classified documents. According to a superseding 2019 indictment, former US Army Intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning responded, providing Assange with vast quantities of classified information. Manning was charged and sentenced to 35 years in prison, but her sentence was commuted by former US President Barack Obama in 2017, just under four years after her sentencing. The Assange indictment alleges that he was “complicit with Chelsea Manning…in unlawfully obtaining and disclosing classified documents related to the national defense.”

What has the legal process looked like until this point?

Back in 2010, Sweden requested the extradition of Assange from the UK on accusations of sexual offences allegedly committed that year. To avoid extradition, he claimed asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and remained there for seven years before Ecuador bowed to international political pressure and rescinded his political asylum. The Metropolitan Police then entered the embassy and made the arrest, physically carrying him out of the building. Following this arrest, the US unsealed the indictment against him, which outlined all 18 federal charges against him. Since then he has been held at Belmarsh prison in London.

In 2021, a UK district court ruled that he could not be extradited to the United States due to concerns for his mental health and the risk of suicide. While she said that the US prosecutors had met all the legal tests, she also found that “the mental condition of Mr. Assange is such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the United States of America.” and that the procedures in place in the US would “not prevent Mr. Assange from finding a way to commit suicide.” This decision was appealed by the US and the High Court ruled in favour of the appellants, after the US made further assurances. The matter was referred back to the Magistrates’ Court at Westminster, with the instructions that it be sent to the Home Secretary (then Priti Patel) for the final determination on whether to extradite. Assange then appealed to the UK Supreme Court but leave to appeal was refused. The Magistrates’ Court then approved his extradition and Priti Patel later ordered it.

What is the current status of his legal struggles?

In the hearing this week, Assange’s legal team are asking for permission to challenge this extradition order by the Home Secretary. This is his last route of appeal within the English and Welsh courts. During the first day of the hearing, which was marred by late starts due to technology issues, Assange’s defence barrister, Edward Fitzgerald KC, said that the US prosecution was retributive and politically motivated and that he should not be punished for simply doing his job as a journalist. They claimed, as they have done previously, that he was subject to a plot by the CIA to assassinate or kidnap him during his stay in the Ecuadorian Embassy. Further, they alleged that there was a “very real risk of further extrajudicial actions against him by the CIA.” His lawyers said that Assange was not present at the hearing, due to illness.

On the second day of the hearing, Claire Dobbin KC, who is acting for the US, told the court that the extradition was not politically motivated but “based on law and evidence.” She went on to say that Assange put individuals at “grave and imminent risk” when he “indiscriminately and knowingly” published the classified documents. She also contended that he had solicited classified documents and sought to obtain information illegally and had, by publishing the information “created a grave and imminent risk that the human sources named therein would suffer serious physical harm.”

Why is his case so controversial?

The case of Assange and WikiLeaks has sparked intense division due to the clash between the principles of free speech and expression and concerns regarding national security. Supporters argue that Assange’s actions in publishing classified documents exemplify the vital role of journalism in holding governments accountable and promoting transparency. They view his prosecution as an attack on press freedom. Conversely, critics assert that Assange’s disclosures jeopardize national security by revealing sensitive information and endangering lives. They contend that while freedom of speech is paramount, it must be balanced with the need to protect state secrets and ensure public safety, making the case a lightning rod for debates on the delicate balance between these fundamental rights and national security imperatives.

Assange’s ill health has been a source of concern for many, with the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Alice Jill Edwards, urging the UK government to stop his extradition. Further, the Australian Federal MPs voted in favour of a motion to repatriate Assange to Australia, in a show of support. The Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese said in a statement ““enough is enough…it is time for this to be brought to a close.”

Hundreds of supporters gathered during the two-day trial, carrying banners saying “free Julian Assange” and chanting slogans in support. Among the supporters were Assange’s wife, Stella and the former labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Stella Assange spoke to the crowds outside the court saying ““They just cannot get away with this. Julian needs his freedom and we all need the truth.” Corbyn said that “Julian Assange has suffered enough” and that “we’ve got to protect journalists. That makes us a stronger and safer democracy.” On the second day, the bad weather didn’t deter the protestors, who turned out once more to show support. His lawyers have suggested that if the appeal fails then they will take their case to the European Court of Human Rights.