Julian Assange makes last-ditch attempt in UK court to avoid extradition to the US

By Lauren Said-Moorhouse, Claudia Rebaza and Amy Cassidy, CNN

London CNN  — 

Julian Assange’s legal team returned to London’s High Court on Tuesday to fight for what could become his final attempt at avoiding extradition to the United States, where he is facing life in prison if convicted on espionage charges.

After a years-long battle, the 52-year-old WikiLeaks founder is down to his only remaining legal avenue in the British justice system and now just two UK High Court judges stand between him and a possible flight across the Atlantic.

The two-day hearing will examine whether the embattled Australian should be granted leave to appeal a 2022 extradition decision made by former UK Home Secretary Priti Patel. If the court’s decision goes against Assange, he must be extradited within 28 days. However, his legal team is expected to apply to the European Court of Human Rights for an intervention to ground the flight through a rule 39 order.

Assange is wanted by US authorities on 18 criminal charges relating to his organization’s dissemination of classified material and diplomatic cables in 2010 and 2011.

Each of those counts carries a potential sentence of 10 years, meaning that if convicted, Assange could be sentenced to up to 175 years in prison.

Tuesday’s hearing is the latest stage in a convoluted journey that has left Assange incarcerated at Belmarsh, a high-security prison in the south-east of the British capital, years after an undignified eviction from London’s Ecuadorian embassy.

Who is Assange?

Assange began his whistleblowing website WikiLeaks in 2006 in what he argued was a bid to challenge the West’s power structures and uphold human rights.

To his acolytes, Assange is a defender of free speech whose journalism has helped uncover secrets of the powerful. His critics, however, have accused him of being a narcissist.

Born in 1971 in Queensland, Australia, Assange became a skilled and prolific hacker in his teens.

While this occasionally ran him into trouble with the law, his brand of “hacktivism” was central to the creation of WikiLeaks.

How we got here

Assange’s battle began in 2010 when then-little-known WikiLeaks started publishing huge quantities of classified documents related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Starting in April, the website posted a video showing a US military helicopter firing on and killing two journalists and several Iraqi civilians in 2007. Several months later, it disclosed more than 90,000 classified Afghan war documents dating back to 2004.

In 2012, Assange sought political asylum within the Ecuadorian embassy in west London. He remained there for almost seven years until the Metropolitan Police entered his safe haven in 2019 acting on an extradition warrant from the US Justice Department. British officers moved in after Ecuador withdrew his asylum and invited authorities into the embassy, citing Assange’s bad behavior.

The US want Assange to be brought to America where he faces an 18-count indictment handed down by the Eastern District of Virginia. This alleges that the WikiLeaks founder actively solicited classified information, pushing former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to obtain thousands of pages of classified material and providing Assange with diplomatic State Department cables, Iraq war-related significant activity reports and information related to Guantanamo Bay detainees.

Two years later, a British judge rejected the US request on the grounds that such a move would be “oppressive” by reason of his mental health. The US continued to press for Assange’s extradition and successfully overturned the judge’s ruling months later after providing fresh assurances on Assange’s treatment in America.

At the hearing on Tuesday, Assange’s team argued that the US’ motivations for their client were political.

Edward Fitzgerald, a lawyer for Assange, opened the defense’s arguments saying that sending the WikiLeaks founder to America would violate a US-UK treaty signed in 2003.

Article 4 of the US-UK Extradition Treaty, enshrined by the UK’s Extradition Act 2003, prohibits deportation for a “political offense,” he said. Therefore, he argued, “extradition would cost a fundamental violation” of that “expressed prohibition.”

“If one looks at the Extradition Act,” Fitzgerald continued, “there is nothing in (it) that either disapplies or rules out the political offenses section.” The absence of this “means it can’t be relied” on, he argued.

Fitzgerald told the court Assange “is being prosecuted for engaging in ordinary journalistic practice of obtaining and publishing classified information, information that is both true and of obvious and important public interest.”

Mark Summers, also a member of Assange’s legal team in court, said the extradition request was “a paradigm example of state retaliation for the expression of political opinion.”

The beleaguered Australian was not in court as he was unwell, the UK’s PA Media news agency reported citing Fitzgerald.

The US is expected to present their arguments to the court on Wednesday.

Ahead of the hearing, Assange’s wife Stella described her husband’s situation as “extremely grave.”

Speaking with reporters at a meeting organized by the Foreign Press Association on Thursday, she added: “It is the final hearing. If it doesn’t go Julian’s way, there is no possibility to appeal to the Supreme Court or anywhere else in this jurisdiction.”

“I’m very concerned about how he’s doing. Physically, he’s aged prematurely,” she told CNN. “He’s on medication. As you know, in October 2021, he had a mini-stroke and he has all sorts of health problems from being in a three-by-two-meter cell for five years. He’s in there for over 22 hours a day. He’s isolated, even if he paces up and down the cell, there’s only so much you can do.”

She also emphasized her concerns for Assange’s wellbeing and said she fears that if extradited, he could take his own life. “His health is in decline, mentally and physically. His life is at risk every single day he stays in prison. If he is extradited, he will die.”

Why is his extradition controversial?

Supporters of Assange and human rights groups have long voiced concern over the US indictment, saying that if the extradition order is allowed to proceed it could have a radical effect on journalism.

“The risk to publishers and investigative journalists around the world hangs in the balance. Should Julian Assange be sent to the US and prosecuted there, global media freedoms will be on trial, too,” said Julia Hall, Amnesty International’s expert on counterterrorism and criminal justice in Europe, in a statement.

Rebecca Vincent, director of International Campaigns for Reporters Without Borders, said his case had “alarming implications for journalism and press freedom.”

“Not least of all, as he would be the first publisher tried under the US Espionage Act, which lacks a public interest defense,” Vincent said during a press conference last Thursday. “This means that this precedent could be applied to any others that publish stories based on classified documents, so that could affect any journalist – any mainstream media organization – anywhere in the world.”

Nick Vamos, head of business crime at Peters & Peters law firm and a former head of extradition at the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service, told CNN it was “unlikely” the court would come to a decision immediately.

“It’s a two-day hearing and obviously that reflects the number of issues that the defense sought to raise,” he explained. Vamos added that the judges would “be mindful that lots of people are paying attention” to Assange’s case and would likely take some time to consider the arguments presented.

This is a developing story – more to come.

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