WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange almost out of options after U.S. wins London extradition ruling

December 10, 2021, 1:16 PM UTC

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is likely to be extradited to the United States to face charges around obtaining and publishing classified documents, after the U.K.’s High Court overturned a ruling that said he could not be extradited because of mental health concerns.

The documents in question were diplomatic cables and military footage that when published a decade ago, revealed thousands of unreported civilian deaths in the second Iraq War and showed how the U.S. military had killed journalists and listed them as enemy combatants. The documents were leaked by a soldier, Chelsea Manning, who went to prison as a result. No one has been prosecuted for any of the alleged war crimes or human rights abuses detailed in the leak.

The U.S. Justice Department charged Assange, the Australian publisher of WikiLeaks, over the incident in April 2019. Although the charges are about espionage and computer hacking, Assange’s cause has been broadly taken up by press freedom advocates.

When she blocked Assange’s extradition at the start of this year, London District Judge Vanessa Baraitser was not concerned with the press freedom aspect of the case. Instead, she agreed with clinical experts that Assange posed a significant suicide risk if the extradition were to go ahead and place him in solitary confinement in the U.S.

The U.S. was quick to appeal and, on Friday, the High Court agreed with two of its grounds: that Baraitser should have first given the U.S. a chance to assure the court about Assange’s future treatment, and that the U.S. has now provided these assurances. Notably, the U.S. has promised not to place Assange under the most restrictive measures or send him to a supermax prison, unless he does something further to merit such a move. The U.S. has also said that if it ends up imposing a prison sentence on Assange, he could serve it in his native Australia.

Assange’s team can still appeal the decision and is likely to try to do so, but the High Court has now told the lower court to send the case to Priti Patel, the U.K. home secretary, so she can decide whether or not he should be extradited.

“How can it be right?”

Stella Moris, Assange’s fiancée, said in a statement that the High Court ruling was a “grave miscarriage” of justice. She also pointed to a recent report that showed the CIA had, under the Trump administration, discussed kidnapping or killing Assange—who was at the time holed up in Ecuador’s London embassy in an attempt to avoid extradition to Sweden over sex-crime allegations.

“How can it be fair, how can it be right, how can it be possible, to extradite Julian to the very country which plotted to kill him?” Moris asked.

The press freedom campaign group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in a statement that despite the U.S. assurances, Assange would still likely face isolation or solitary confinement if deported there.

“This ruling marks a bleak moment for journalists and journalism around the world, on the very day when we should be celebrating the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to two journalists and urging states to uphold the commitments to media freedom they have just reaffirmed at the U.S.-led Summit for Democracy,” said RSF director of international campaigns Rebecca Vincent. “We call on the U.S. government to truly lead by example and close this case now before further damage is done. Julian Assange should be immediately released, and steps taken to ensure no journalist, publisher or source can ever be targeted in this way again.”

Assange and WikiLeaks’ record is checkered, to say the least. Apart from its work exposing human rights abuses, it also played a role in the so-called Climategate scandal of 2009, disseminating hacked emails between climate scientists that were used to undermine warnings of global warming, just before the Copenhagen climate summit. More famously, WikiLeaks also distributed emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee (by Russian operatives) ahead of the 2016 election; some of the emails embarrassed Hillary Clinton’s campaign, thus arguably playing a part in Donald Trump’s eventual election.

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