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WikiLeaks founder Assange may be near the end of his long fight to stay out of the US

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is facing what could be his final court hearing in England over whether he should be extradited to the United States to face spying charges

Brian Melley
Monday 19 February 2024 15:42 GMT

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's fight to avoid facing spying charges in the United States may be nearing an end following a protracted legal saga in the U.K. that included seven years of self-exile inside a foreign embassy and five years in prison.

Assange faces what could be his final court hearing in London next week as he tries to stop his extradition to the U.S. The High Court has scheduled two days of arguments over whether Assange can ask an appeals court to block his transfer. If the court doesn't allow the appeal to go forward, he could be sent across the Atlantic.

His wife says the decision is a matter of life and death for Assange, whose health has deteriorated during his time in custody.

“His life is at risk every single day he stays in prison,” Stella Assange said Thursday. “If he’s extradited, he will die.”

WHAT IS ASSANGE CHARGED WITH?

Assange, 52, an Australian computer expert, has been indicted in the U.S. on 18 charges over Wikileaks' publication of hundreds of thousands of classified documents in 2010.

Prosecutors say he conspired with U.S. army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to hack into a Pentagon computer and release secret diplomatic cables and military files on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He faces 17 counts of espionage and one charge of computer misuse. If convicted, his lawyers say he could receive a prison term of up to 175 years, though American authorities have said any sentence is likely to be much lower.

Assange and his supporters argue he acted as a journalist to expose U.S. military wrongdoing and is protected under press freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Among the files published by WikiLeaks was video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack by American forces in Baghdad that killed 11 people, including two Reuters journalists.

“Julian has been indicted for receiving, possessing and communicating information to the public of evidence of war crimes committed by the U.S. government,” Stella Assange said. “Reporting a crime is never a crime.”

U.S. lawyers say Assange is guilty of trying to hack the Pentagon computer and that WikiLeaks’ publications created a “grave and imminent risk” to U.S. intelligence sources in Afghanistan and Iraq.

WHY HAS THE CASE DRAGGED ON SO LONG?

While the U.S. criminal case against Assange was only unsealed in 2019, his freedom has been restricted for more than a dozen years.

Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2012 and was granted political asylum after courts in England ruled he should be extradited to Sweden as part of a rape investigation in the Scandinavian country.

He was arrested by British police after Ecuador’s government withdrew his asylum status in 2019 and then jailed for skipping bail when he first took shelter inside the embassy.

Although Sweden dropped its sex crimes investigation, Assange has remained in London’s high-security Belmarsh Prison while the extradition battle with the U.S. continues.

A judge in London initially blocked Assange’s transfer to the U.S. on the grounds he was likely to kill himself if held in harsh American prison conditions.

But subsequent courts cleared the way for the move after U.S. authorities provided assurances he wouldn’t experience the severe treatment that his lawyers said would put his physical and mental health at risk.

Stella Assange and her husband's supporters have criticized those assurances as being meaningless because they are conditional.

WHAT ARE POSSIBLE OUTCOMES FROM THE HEARING?

If the London court rejects Assange's plea for a full appeal, he could be extradited to the U.S. once British officials approve his removal.

His legal team plans to appeal an adverse ruling to the European Court of Human Rights, but they fear he could possibly be transferred before the court in Strasbourg, France, could halt his removal.

If he prevails at next week's hearing, it would set the stage for an appeal process that is likely to further drag out the case.

“This procedure has been marked by prolonged and creeping time frames,” Wikileaks Editor-in-Chief Kristinn Hrafnsson said. “We call it punishment through process. It is obviously a deliberate attempt to wear him down to punish him by taking this long.”

While the U.K. Supreme Court rejected Assange's petition, saying he didn't raise an “arguable point of law," his wife said his new bid will raise several points that are grounds for appeal.

Lawyers for Assange plan to argue he can't get a fair trial in the U.S., that a U.S.-U.K. treaty prohibits extradition for political offenses and that the crime of espionage was not meant to apply to publishers.

“The drafters of the Espionage Act did not intend for publishers to fall within its ambit,” Stella Assange wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “Unchallenged expert evidence showed that receipt and publication of state secrets is routine, and that there was an ‘unbroken practice of non-prosecution’ of publishers. The prosecution ‘crosses a new legal frontier’ and ‘breaks all legal precedents.’”

WHAT IS ASSANGE'S CURRENT STATE?

Stella Assange said her husband's mental and physical health has declined dramatically and he's aged prematurely in prison. He experienced a mini-stroke in October 2021 and was so ill in December that he broke a rib coughing.

“I worry about him every time he gets sick,” Stella Assange said. “The mental toll is extreme.”

The couple, who got married at Belmarsh Prison almost two years ago, have two young sons, Gabriel and Max, who were conceived during Assange's stay in the embassy.

The boys visit their father in prison every week, undergoing security checks that include being patted down by guards and sniffed by dogs, Stella Assange said. The couple is protective of the children, who haven’t been told why their father is behind bars, according to their mother.

“I don’t think it’s fair on them to know what’s really going on,” she said as she choked up. “They know exactly what a prison is. They know that the guards are stopping Julian from leaving the prison even though he wants to come home.”

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