A judge in London plans to rule Monday on whether Britain should extradite Julian Assange to the United States, where the WikiLeaks founder faces charges of conspiring to hack government computers and violating the Espionage Act by obtaining and releasing confidential documents in 2010 and 2011.
A ruling in favor of the U.S. extradition request could pave the way for a high-stakes trial that Assange has sought to avoid for years, and which his supporters say poses a dangerous threat to press freedom. Assange faces up to 175 years in prison if found guilty of all charges.
If the judge, Vanessa Baraitser, rejects the extradition request, however, it would give Assange a major victory at a time when recent U.S. administrations have increasingly used the Espionage Act against journalists’ sources.
Here is what you need to know about the ruling.
Q: What are the possible outcomes?
A: Baraitser will not rule on whether Assange is guilty of wrongdoing but will decide whether the U.S. extradition request meets requirements set out under a 2003 extradition treaty with Britain — namely, that the alleged crime for which Assange is wanted could also lead to trial in Britain, had he done it there.
If Baraitser rules in favor of the extradition, the case would go to Britain’s home secretary, who makes the final decision on extraditions. And it would be a politically delicate choice: Assange is such a high-profile figure, and the U.S. charges he faces so serious, that a decision by British authorities will have long-lasting consequences.
Yet before moving to the home secretary, appeals are likely to keep the case in courts for months. And if Assange were to lose, his legal team could also attempt to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights. If he were to win on appeal, he could be freed.
President-elect Joe Biden could play a critical role in determining the fate of Assange.
“If the British judge rules in favor of an extradition, and the U.S. is able to extradite, it will likely fall to the new president to make a decision as to whether the government should continue with the prosecution,” said Carl Tobias, a professor of law at the University of Richmond.
As vice president, Biden called the WikiLeaks founder a “high-tech terrorist” in 2010, but it remains unclear what he would do as president. Biden could pardon Assange, or the Department of Justice could drop the charges against him, or carry on with the prosecution.
Calls for President Donald Trump to pardon Assange have also grown in recent weeks as Trump has issued a wave of pardons and commutations before his term ends.
Britain has turned down several extradition requests from the United States in recent years. In 2012, it refused to extradite Gary McKinnon, a British hacker who breached U.S. government computers in 2002, on the basis that he was too ill. In 2018, a high court ruling also blocked the extradition of Lauri Love, who was accused of breaking into U.S. government websites.
Q: What is at stake with the ruling, and any U.S. trial?
A: A ruling in favor of extradition could subject Assange to life in prison.
The U.S. government considers Assange an individual who has put lives at risk by revealing names of U.S. personnel and informants who provided valuable information in dangerous places like war zones.
“Reporting or journalism is not an excuse for criminal activities or a license to break ordinary criminal laws,” James Lewis, a lawyer representing the U.S. government, told the British court last year.
But news organizations and rights groups say the charges that Assange faces pose a serious threat to press freedom.
“The future of journalism and press freedom is at stake here,” said Rebecca Vincent, the London-based director of international campaigns at Reporters Without Borders.
“If the U.S. government is successful in obtaining Mr. Assange’s extradition and prosecuting him in the U.S., then it could prosecute any journalist and news organizations under similar charges,” Vincent added.
Greg Barns, an Australian lawyer and adviser to Assange, said, “The greatest risk for him in the U.S. is that he won’t face a fair trial.” Barns added: “He could spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement, treated in a cruel and arbitrary fashion.”
Q: Why is Assange in a British prison?
A: In 2012, Assange entered the Ecuadorean Embassy in London to escape an extradition request from Sweden, where he faced rape accusations. He spent seven years in the embassy but was arrested by British police in 2019 and later sentenced to 50 weeks in prison for skipping bail when he entered the embassy.
The charges in Sweden have been dropped, and Assange has completed his 50-week sentence. He is not accused of any crime outside the United States, but he remains at the Belmarsh prison in London as Britain decides on his extradition. His bail requests have been rejected.
Several doctors have said that Assange suffers from depression and memory loss and could attempt to kill himself if he were extradited.(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)Nils Melzer, a U.N. special rapporteur on torture and ill treatment who has examined Assange in prison, said last year that his incarceration amounted to “psychological torture.”
“I can attest to the fact that his health has seriously deteriorated, to the point where his life is now in danger,” Melzer said last month in urging Trump to pardon Assange.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)Q: Why is Assange wanted in the United States?
A: Assange, 49, was indicted in 2019 on 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act for obtaining and publishing secret military and diplomatic documents. He was later charged with violating the Computers Fraud and Abuse Act.
Assange’s promotion of government transparency has made him a hero to many, but he has also been criticized as a publicity seeker with an erratic personality.
The publication of the material exposed various crimes and wrongdoings committed by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, and rights groups have hailed their release as valuable information for the public. Right groups like Reporters Without Borders and Amnesty International have called for all charges to be dropped.
“The activities that Julian Assange engaged in are activities that journalists engage in all the time,” said Julia Hall, Amnesty International’s expert on counterterrorism and criminal justice in Europe. “We wouldn’t have information without them.”(STORY CAN END HERE. OPTIONAL MATERIAL FOLLOWS.)Q: What happened during the extradition hearings?
A: The hearings were delayed by the coronavirus pandemic and technical glitches that rights groups said hampered their ability to monitor them.
In February, Assange appeared in a glass box, where he could not hear properly, according to observers. In September, after an outburst from Assange, the judge warned that he would be removed from the courtroom if he kept interrupting prosecutors. Lewis, acting for the U.S. government, argued that Assange faced extradition over the publication of informants’ names, not for handling leaked documents.
In their closing remarks, lawyers for Assange argued that accusations of espionage constituted a political offense, and that an extradition on the basis of a political offense was barred by the extradition treaty between the Britain and the United States.
Asked whether he would consent to extradition to the United States, Assange replied: “No.”