British interior minister orders Julian Assange extradition to US to face espionage charges

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LONDON – Britain's interior minister on Friday approved the extradition of Julian Assange to the United States to face espionage charges, the latest twist in the WikiLeaks founder's long-running legal saga over leaked documents he published.

But the decision does not completely end Assange's decadelong fight to avoid facing a U.S. trial in a case that could have implications for First Amendment protections.

WikiLeaks said Assange will appeal Patel's decision with Britain's High Court.

"UK courts have not found that it would be oppressive, unjust or an abuse of process to extradite Mr Assange," Home Secretary Priti Patel's office said in a statement.

"Nor have they found that extradition would be incompatible with his human rights, including his right to a fair trial and to freedom of expression, and that whilst in the US he will be treated appropriately, including in relation to his health."

There was no immediate reaction from the U.S. Department of Justice.

The U.S. Department of Justice has indicted Australian national Assange, 50, on 18 charges, centering on allegations that he aided and abetted former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning's efforts to leak classified documents and committed a crime by publishing them on the internet. The documents showed the U.S. military killed civilians and did not report the incidents.

Julian Assange: He infuriated Washington. Now he's facing life in prison

Images and messages of support for Julian Assange near Belmarsh Prison, on Jan. 4, 2021, in London.
Images and messages of support for Julian Assange near Belmarsh Prison, on Jan. 4, 2021, in London.

Assange is currently locked up at Belmarsh Prison, a facility that houses some of Britain's most dangerous lawbreakers. He is there because he was found guilty of skipping bail in 2012 when he fled to Ecuador's embassy in London rather than turn himself in to British authorities for possible extradition to Sweden. At the time, Scandinavian investigators wanted to question him over sexual assault allegations connected to two women. Those allegations have since been dropped.

Assange's lawyers feared that if he were extradited to Sweden, it would be easier for American authorities to then extradite him to the U.S.

He denies any wrongdoing.

Assange and his supporters describe him as a political refugee whose case is politically motivated because he published documents that exposed U.S. military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan. His detractors say he doesn't write stories or interview anyone or provide sufficient explanatory context and that the dissemination of raw, unfiltered documents and data – the publication of stolen classified materials – is not journalism.

The U.S. government maintains Assange is guilty of "straightforward" criminality for hacking and then publishing secret military and intelligence information that put secret U.S. sources at risk of torture or death in places from Iraq to China.

Assange’s lawyers say he could face up to 175 years in jail if he is convicted in the U.S., though American authorities have said the sentence probably would be much lower than that. A British district court initially rejected a U.S. extradition request on the grounds that Assange was likely to kill himself if held under harsh U.S. prison conditions. U.S. authorities later provided assurances that the WikiLeaks founder wouldn’t face the severe treatment that his lawyers had argued would put his physical and mental health at risk. The U.S. has also promised not to seek Assange's execution if he is found guilty.

Dunja Mijatović, Commissioner for Human Rights for the Council of Europe, an organization affiliated with the European Union, wrote in a recent letter to Patel that "allowing Mr Assange’s extradition on this basis would have a chilling effect on media freedom, and could ultimately hamper the press in performing its task as purveyor of information and public watchdog in democratic societies."

John Kiriakou, a former CIA analyst who blew the whistle on a U.S. government-sanctioned torture program in 2007 that was approved by then-President George W. Bush because of the feared threats posed by the Al Qaeda terrorist organization, previously told USA TODAY that Assange's U.S. case could set a precedent that would erode press freedoms for news organizations that publish classified information.

"If you are able to prosecute someone who has a strong case to be called a publisher, then who's next?" said Kiriakou, who served jail time after pleading guilty to leaking the name of an officer involved in waterboarding.

While in prison Assange married his long-term partner Stella Morris, a lawyer who has worked on the campaign to prevent his extradition and secure his release.

Don't Extradite Assange, an official U.K. campaign group, said in a statement that this "is a dark day for Press freedom and for British democracy. Anyone in this country who cares about freedom of expression should be deeply ashamed ... Julian did nothing wrong. He has committed no crime and is not a criminal. He is a journalist and a publisher, and he is being punished for doing his job."


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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: WikiLeaks' Julian Assange extradition to US approved by UK