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Assange Can Appeal Extradition to U.S., British Court Rules

A London court ruled on Monday that Julian Assange, the embattled WikiLeaks founder, could appeal his extradition to the United States, a move that opens a new chapter in his prolonged fight against the order in Britain’s courts.

Two High Court judges said they would allow a full appeal to be heard because questions remained about his First Amendment rights in the United States and whether his status as an Australian citizen would be prejudicial. Mr. Assange’s lawyers have until Friday to submit a full case outline to the court.

Mr. Assange, 52, has been held in Belmarsh, one of Britain’s highest-security prisons, in southeastern London since 2019 as his fight against the extradition order has proceeded through the courts.

Earlier this year, the High Court asked the American government to give assurances that Mr. Assange would be granted protections under the U.S. Constitution, including that he would not be “prejudiced by reason of his nationality,” that he could rely on the First Amendment right to free speech, and that the death penalty would not be imposed.

The U.S. Embassy in Britain provided assurances on those issues in a letter sent in April. Mr. Assange’s legal team accepted that the United States had guaranteed he would not face the death penalty but argued in court that the other assurances did not go far enough to meet the court’s request.

The United States had promised that Mr. Assange would “have the ability to raise and seek” First Amendment protections.

“We say this is a blatantly inadequate assurance,” said Edward Fitzgerald, one of Mr. Assange’s lawyers, arguing, “There is no guarantee that he will be even permitted to rely on the First Amendment.”

In their Monday decision, the judges agreed Mr. Assange had grounds to appeal on that basis.

Mr. Assange faces charges in the United States under the Espionage Act related to WikiLeaks’ publication of tens of thousands of secret military and diplomatic documents leaked to the site by Chelsea Manning, an Army intelligence analyst, in 2010.

In June 2012, Mr. Assange entered the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, where he stayed for the next seven years over fears that he could be arrested. He was eventually evicted from the embassy in 2019 and was promptly arrested.

The U.S. Justice Department had charged Mr. Assange with 18 counts of violating the Espionage Act by participating in a criminal hacking conspiracy and by encouraging hackers to steal secret material. In 2021, the extradition order for Mr. Assange was denied by a British judge, who ruled that he would be at risk of suicide if sent to a U.S. prison, but the High Court later reversed that decision. In 2022, Priti Patel, Britain’s home secretary at the time, approved the extradition request.

An earlier request from Mr. Assange’s legal team for an appeal was rejected by a judge, before the two judges who made Monday’s decision decided that his appeal could go ahead.

Speaking outside of the court after the decision, Rebecca Vincent, director of campaigns for Reporters Without Borders, an advocacy group that has long denounced the charges against Mr. Assange, called the decision a victory for his case, but more broadly cited it as a victory for press freedom.

“It has been far too long to get to this point, but it is so important,” she said, before urging President Biden to “make it his legacy” to drop the case.

Kristinn Hrafnsson, editor in chief of WikiLeaks, said the court delivered a clear message to the U.S. government, declaring, “You are losing, drop the case.”

Since his arrest in 2019, Mr. Assange has rarely been seen, and in his final hearing on Monday he decided not to attend for undisclosed health reasons, according to his legal team. Throughout his time in prison, his lawyers and his wife, Stella Assange, have warned about his physical and mental health. In 2021, Ms. Assange had a small stroke. Speaking ahead of the final hearing, Ms. Assange said her concerns for his mental health were “very serious.”

Mr. Hrafnsson, the editor in chief of WikiLeaks, said at a news briefing last week that Mr. Assange’s legal team had been focusing its efforts on a political resolution, which he said “has been bearing fruit.”

“More and more political leaders are coming to the side of Julian,” Mr. Hrafnsson said. “They see the absurdity in this case. And how serious the implications this would have for press freedom worldwide.”

The Australian government has put its support behind Mr. Assange, and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has said he hopes the case can be “resolved amicably.”

Last month, Mr. Biden said that the administration was considering a request from Australia that Mr. Assange be allowed to return there and not face prison, prompting speculation that Washington could be rethinking the case. The U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment at the time.

Supporters have long argued that Mr. Assange’s life could be at risk if he was sent to the United States for trial. While his lawyers say that he could face up to 175 years in prison if convicted, lawyers for the U.S. government have said that he would be more likely to be sentenced to four to six years.

James Lewis, a lawyer for the United States, argued in court on Monday that assurances provided by the United States made it clear that Mr. Assange would have ample protections to ensure that the country would abide by Britain’s extradition law.

The prolonged nature of the case is not unheard-of, in part because of Britain’s extradition rules, which allow for appeals on a variety of issues, said Nick Vamos, former head of extradition for the British Crown Prosecution Service.

“The courts will entertain lots of different kinds of arguments about fairness and prison conditions and human rights and political motivations and all of those things,” Mr. Vamos said, adding that, ultimately, this may have allowed Mr. Assange to “buy time” for a political solution.

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