The British government approved Friday the extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the U.S., where he is wanted on charges under the Espionage Act. He has 14 days to appeal and WikiLeaks said it would challenge the decision.
Assange, 50, and an Australian national, is wanted in the U.S. on 18 criminal charges after WikiLeaks in 2009 and 2010 published thousands of secret U.S. military and diplomatic documents concerning the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The extradition order, signed by British Home Secretary Priti Patel, came after a long legal battle that went all the way up to the country’s Supreme Court. Assange’s lawyers argued that he is at risk of suicide if held in a maximum security prison in the U.S., but the British courts accepted U.S. assurances over Assange’s treatment.
“In this case, the UK courts have not found that it would be oppressive, unjust or an abuse of process to extradite Mr Assange,” the British Home 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.”
Press freedom and human rights groups have condemned the decision, arguing that Assange is at risk of torture and is being silenced for public service journalism.
Here, what to know about the story so far:
Who is Julian Assange and what is his website, WikiLeaks?
Cyber activist Assange launched the non-profit, WikiLeaks in 2006, with the aim of exposing state secrets in the public interest. In 2010, U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning provided WikiLeaks with more than 700,000 highly classified documents relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The documents included evidence of what appeared to be war crimes, including footage released in April 2010 of U.S. soldiers shooting and killing civilians from a helicopter in Iraq. The U.S. argues that the disclosure of sensitive information about human intelligence sources and surveillance techniques put lives at risk. Assange’s lawyers said he worked with media partners and the U.S. government to redact the names, and that access to the unredacted information was the fault of a book published by The Guardian—an allegation the newspaper denied.
In November 2010, Swedish authorities issued an arrest warrant for Assange over allegations of rape and sexual assault of two women on separate occasions while he was visiting Sweden for a conference. Assange was working in London at the time, and claimed the allegations were fabricated in order to facilitate his extradition from Sweden to the U.S. for publishing sensitive documents. His lawyers said that Assange’s offers to be interviewed in the Swedish embassy in London or over the phone were declined.
Facing extradition to Sweden, Assange skipped bail in June 2012 and fled to the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Two months later, Ecuador granted him asylum on the grounds of political persecution. He resided in the embassy building for seven years, during which time the Swedish investigation was dropped, initially in 2017 because he couldn’t be interviewed. The case was briefly reopened after he left the embassy in 2019, but dropped again because prosecutors say witnesses’ memories had faded after a decade, making the oral testimony weaker.
Why does the U.S. want to extradite Assange?
After a series of alleged behavioral transgressions in the embassy, Ecuador revoked Assange’s diplomatic asylum in April 2019. His supporters claimed the move was in retaliation to WikiLeaks’ sharing a tweet about a corruption probe into Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno. Moreno has denied any wrongdoing and said the decision was taken because Assange’s behavior was too disruptive.
Within hours of losing his immunity, British police arrested Assange on a U.S. extradition warrant to face indictment for government computer hacking. While in custody, the British courts charged him for breach of bail in 2012, and he was sentenced to 50 weeks in a high security prison in London. In May 2019, Assange was indicted with 17 further charges under the U.S. Espionage Act, which in total carried a maximum prison sentence of 170 years. Assange and his supporters argue that WikiLeaks’ publishing of secret documents does not amount to espionage, and that the material is in the public interest.
In the high security Belmarsh prison, Assange’s health has reportedly deteriorated. In a significant intervention, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, said that an examination of Assange in May 2019 showed “symptoms typical for prolonged exposure to psychological torture, including extreme stress, chronic anxiety and intense psychological trauma.” The British government disagreed with some of his observations.
Proceedings to extradite Assange to the U.S. began in May 2019 but were held up by the COVID-19 pandemic. In January 2021, a British judge ruled that Assange could not be extradited due to concerns that his imprisonment in a maximum security prison in the U.S. would be oppressive due to his risk of suicide. He was denied bail while the U.S. appealed the decision, over fears he might jump bail.
The U.S. took its appeal to the High Court and provided assurances that Assange would not face the harshest conditions while in prison, which would mitigate his risk of suicide. Assange’s defense argued that the assurances could not be trusted—the U.S. withheld the right to rescind the special measures if it felt it was necessary. The defense also drew attention to a Yahoo News report published in September 2021 that alleged the CIA had plotted to poison, abduct, or assassinate Assange in 2017. The High Court ruled in favor of the U.S. in December 2021, and another London court formally approved the extradition in April this year.
What do Assange’s supporters say?
Human rights organizations including Amnesty International and Freedom From Torture condemned the British government’s signing of the extradition order on June 19 as “disturbing” and “cruel.”
“Despite promising that he will not face prolonged solitary confinement amounting to torture or other ill-treatment if extradited, U.S. authorities have openly stated that they can change the terms of Assange’s imprisonment as they see fit,” Tracy Doig, Head of International Advocacy at Freedom from Torture, said in a statement. “No one should be extradited to a country if they are in danger of being tortured.”
International press freedom advocates, including Reporters Without Borders (RSF), are defending Assange on the basis that he acted in the public interest. “The decision to sign this extradition order is shameful,” Rebecca Vincent, director of International Campaigns for RSF, tells TIME. “The British government is enabling the U.S. government to pursue a publisher simply for publishing information in the public interest. It’s really concerning that the U.K. government would fail to protect him and the principles at stake.”
Vincent believes that the British government’s decision was politically motivated to please Washington. Part of the two nations’ long-standing bilateral collaboration is an extradition treaty that makes it easier for each country to hand over suspected criminals to face trial. “It sends a concerning message to others, not just journalists, but other critics, people who might come to this country expecting to be protected, that the U.K. government can be pressured by other governments,” Vincent says.
Leaking documents in the public interest is now “part-and-parcel” of modern journalism, Vincent says. “We’ve seen big collaborative projects like Panama Papers, the Paradise Papers, and it’s worth noting that WikiLeaks started that,” she says. “It’s changed the face of journalism.” Punishing this kind of act would set a “dangerous precedent,” she adds.
What happens next?
Assange has 14 days from June 17 to appeal the extradition order. This time around, the outcome of any legal proceedings could be very different to previous challenges, Vincent says. While the previous hearings at the High Court and Supreme Court focused on “narrower” legal points in the case, she says, any potential appeal now will take into account the case “as a whole.” “Theoretically, we could see a quite different decision, we could see a strong decision in his favor.”
While the process continues, Assange will remain in Belmarsh prison, where he is allowed visits from his wife, Stella Assange, and their two children. Mrs. Assange, a lawyer, was initially on Assange’s legal team, but they started a relationship during his time in the Ecuadorian embassy.
At a press conference in October, she told reporters that Assange was suffering physically and mentally as a result of the proceedings. “I saw Julian in Belmarsh prison. He was looking very unwell…I was quite taken aback by how thin he was,” she said.
Although the proceedings are currently being dealt with in the British courts the U.S. government could choose to cancel the extradition request at any point. Vincent says that U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision not to distance his administration from the case when he assumed office was a “missed opportunity.”
“This case will continue to be a blight on the reputation of the U.S. government as long as it continues,” she says. “You can’t undo the last 11 years, but they can do the right thing going forward.”