Frank Augstein / AP
LONDON – The US government is set to ask the UK High Court on Wednesday to overturn a judge’s ruling that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should not be sent to the US to face espionage charges .
In January, a trial judge denied a US request to extradite Assange for espionage following WikiLeaks’ release of secret military documents ten years ago.
District Judge Vanessa Baraitser denied the extradition on health grounds, saying Assange was likely to kill himself if held in harsh US prison conditions. But she rejected defense arguments that Assange would face politically motivated U.S. lawsuits that violated free speech protections, and she said the U.S. justice system would give her a fair trial.
Lawyers for the US authorities were allowed to appeal. At a previous hearing, they questioned the psychiatric evidence in the case and argued that Assange did not reach the threshold of being “so sick” that he could not help but make himself. difficulty.
Several dozen pro-Assange protesters gathered outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London ahead of the two-day hearing.
Assange, who is being held at Belmarsh High Security Prison in London, was due to attend by video link, but he was not present at the start of the hearing. His lawyer, Edward Fitzgerald, said Assange “does not feel able to attend the proceedings.”
Assange’s partner Stella Moris said outside court that she was “very worried about Julian’s health. I saw him on Saturday. He is very skinny.”
“It is totally unthinkable that UK courts could accept this,” Moris said. “I hope the courts will put an end to this nightmare, that Julian can return home soon, and that wise heads prevail.”
The two judges on the appeal – including England’s longest-serving judge, Lord Chief Justice Ian Burnett – are not expected to deliver their decision for several weeks.
However, the High Court ruling is unlikely to end the epic legal saga, as the losing party can appeal to the UK Supreme Court.
U.S. prosecutors have charged Assange with 17 counts of espionage and one count of computer abuse following WikiLeaks’ publication of thousands of leaked military and diplomatic documents. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison.
Prosecutors say Assange illegally aided US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in stealing classified diplomatic cables and military files that WikiLeaks later released. Lawyers for Assange argue that he was acting as a journalist and that he is entitled to the Free Speech protections of the First Amendment for publishing materials exposing the misdeeds of the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Assange, 50, has been in jail since his arrest in April 2019 for ignoring bail in a separate legal battle. Before that, he spent seven years locked up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he fled in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden to face allegations of rape and sexual assault.
Sweden dropped sex crimes investigations in November 2019 because a lot of time had passed, but Assange remains in jail. The judge who blocked the extradition in January ordered that he must remain in detention during any American appeal, saying that the Australian citizen “had better run away” if released.
WikiLeaks supporters say that witness testimony at the extradition hearing that Assange was spied on while in the embassy by a Spanish security company at the request of the CIA – and that there has even been talk of kidnapping or killing him – undermines American claims that he will be treated fairly.
Journalism organizations and human rights groups have urged President Joe Biden to drop charges brought under his predecessor, Donald Trump.
Amnesty International Secretary General Agnès Callamard said the charges were politically motivated and should be dropped.
“It is a damning indictment that almost 20 years later, virtually no one responsible for alleged American war crimes committed during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has been held accountable, let alone prosecuted, and yet an editor who has exposed such crimes is potentially facing a life in prison, ”she said.