What to know as Julian Assange faces a ruling on his U.S. extradition case over WikiLeaks secrets

What to know as Julian Assange faces a ruling on his U.S. extradition case over WikiLeaks secrets


London — Lawyers for Julian Assange on Tuesday launched their final appeal to a U.K. court against plans for the WikiLeaks founder to be extradited to the U.S. to face espionage charges related to government secrets he spilled on his website. Assange, who has been imprisoned in London for almost five years, used WikiLeaks to publish a huge number of confidential documents and other materials, some of which related to war and espionage, arguing the public had a legitimate right and need to possess the information.

The 52-year-old Australian journalist and activist has been battling the American extradition bid for more than a decade. On Tuesday, his lawyers launched the last-ditch legal effort available to them under the British justice system. They are asking two London High Court judges to grant Assange a new appeal hearing against the British government’s 2022 decision that he can be legally extradited to the U.S.

Stella Assange, the wife of Julian Assange, arrives at the Royal Courts Of Justice in London ahead of a two-day hearing in the extradition case of WikiLeaks founder, Feb. 20, 2024.

Yui Mok/PA Image/Getty

Assange’s wife Stella walked into the court Tuesday through a large group of supporters demanding her husband’s immediate release.

As the hearing began, Ed Fitzgerald, one of Assange’s lawyers, told the court the WikiLeaks founder wasn’t attending the Tuesday hearing because he felt unwell. One of the judges made it clear that he had been invited to attend, either in person or via video link. Fitzgerald did not provide any further detail on Assange’s health.

What is this hearing about?

If the judges grant Assange the right to launch a fresh appeal, it will enable him to ask the European Court of Human Rights to block the extradition. If the appeal is rejected — and possibly even if the court rules in his favor — he’s likely to be put on a plane to face the U.S. courts, since the extradition order as signed roughly a year and a half ago.

The High Court judges, Victoria Sharp and Jeremy Johnson, could take weeks to consider their ruling, but the hearing is scheduled to take place over two days, so a verdict could be issued as soon as Wednesday.

Buildings are reflected in the window as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is taken from court, where he appeared on charges of jumping British bail seven years earlier, in London, in a May 1, 2019 file photo.

Matt Dunham/AP

What are the charges against Assange in the U.S.?

In 2019, a federal grand jury in Virginia indicted Assange on 18 charges over the publication of classified documents in 2010. The charges include 17 counts of espionage and one charge of computer intrusion.

In a statement, the U.S. Department of Justice said Assange was complicit in the actions of Chelsea Manning, a former U.S. Army intelligence analyst, in “unlawfully obtaining and disclosing classified documents related to the national defense.”

One of the most contentious of WikiLeaks’ publications was video from a 2007 U.S. military helicopter strike in Baghdad that killed 11 people.

What sentence could Assange face if convicted?

Assange could face up to 10 years in prison for every count of espionage he’s convicted on, and five years for the conspiracy to commit computer intrusion, according to the Department of Justice. 

If he were convicted on all the charges, he could face a total of 175 years in prison, though the sentence would likely be lower.

What do Assange’s supporters say?

The fight to stop Assange’s extradition to the U.S. has been linked by many of his supporters to the fight for press freedom and the right to a fair trial. The Guardian newspaper argued in its editorial section this week that journalists need whistleblowers such as Assange, particularly on matters of national security. 

Rebecca Vincent, campaign director for the Reporters Without Borders group, said in a statement that even if this final appeal is rejected, “it remains within the U.S. government’s power to bring this judicial tragedy to an end by dropping its 13 year-old case against Assange and ceasing this endless persecution. No one should face such treatment for publishing information in the public interest. It’s time to protect journalism, press freedom, and all of our right to know.”

Assange’s physical and mental wellbeing have also been called into question.

Report: CIA considered kidnapping, killing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange

Amnesty International has said that if Assange is extradited, he would face a “risk of serious human rights violations including possible detention conditions that would amount to torture and other ill-treatment.”

“There could not be more at stake in a single court case than there is in Julian’s case,” Stella Assange said in a statement issued Monday, calling for supporters to protest in front of the Royal Courts of Justice in London on Tuesday and Wednesday, when the appeal hearings are scheduled to take place. “Journalists must have the right to report the facts that governments and corporations want to hide, otherwise a truly free press is impossible.”

In an interview with the BBC, she said her husband would not survive an extradition to the U.S. because of his physical and mental fragility.

“This case will determine if he lives or dies, essentially,” she told the CBS News partner network.

What was Assange arrested for in the U.K.?

In 2012, Assange took refuge at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to avoid being extradited to Sweden, where he was facing an investigation into allegations of a sexual assault. That investigation was later dropped and no charges were ever filed.

After Assange spent about seven years holed up in the embassy, Ecuador revoked his asylum status in 2019, when the Central American country’s president said his government had “reached its limit on the behavior of Mr. Assange.”

Assange was formally placed under arrest by London’s Metropolitan Police the moment he left the embassy for failing to surrender to the court over a warrant issued in 2012, and he has been in custody ever since.


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