UK court opens way for Assange to appeal US extradition

High Court gives the US additional time to give ‘satisfactory assurances’ that WikiLeaks founder will face a fair trial.

Stella Assange, the wife of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, speaks to the media, following a ruling on whether Julian Assange can appeal against extradition from Britain to the United States, in London, Britain, March 26, 2024. REUTERS/Toby Melville
Stella Assange, wife of Julian Assange, speaks to the media, following the ruling in London, the United Kingdom [Toby Melville/Reuters]

A UK court has ruled that Julian Assange should have the chance to appeal an order to extradite him to the US.

The High Court in London ruled on Tuesday that the WikiLeaks founder must have the right to challenge the British government’s June 2022 extradition order, unless the United States provides within three weeks assurances that he would receive a fair trial and would not face the death penalty.

At the same time, the court rejected Assange’s bid for an appeal based on the claim that the case against him is politically motivated.

The ruling suggests that the legal wrangling, which has been ongoing for more than a decade, will continue. Assange, who was not present in court to hear the ruling, has been detained in London’s Belmarsh Prison since he was arrested in 2019.

US prosecutors are seeking to put the 52-year-old on trial on 18 counts, all bar one under the Espionage Act, over WikiLeaks’s release of confidential US military records and diplomatic cables.

Assange’s lawyers in February sought permission to challenge the United Kingdom’s approval of his extradition to the US, arguing his prosecution was politically motivated.

In their ruling, two senior judges said the Australian citizen had a real prospect of successfully appealing against extradition on a number of grounds.

The court said in its written ruling that as a non-US national, Assange arguably would not be able to rely on the First Amendment right of free speech, and could later be charged with a capital offence. That, it said, could mean it would be unlawful to extradite him.

Judges Victoria Sharp and Jeremy Johnson gave Washington three weeks to provide fresh assurances over concerns that he could be “prejudiced at trial” because he is not a US citizen and that he could face the death penalty if convicted.

If those assurances are not forthcoming, then Assange will be granted permission to appeal, the ruling said.

A further hearing has been scheduled for May 20, meaning that Assange cannot be extradited immediately. His campaign team had warned that could have happened, depending on the ruling.

‘Highly nuanced’

Though offering Assange the possible chance to appeal, the court rejected the WikiLeaks founder’s appeal bid on the basis that the case was politically motivated or that he would not receive a fair trial.

Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull, reporting from London, suggested: “It was a highly nuanced decision in the end.

“The judges haven’t thrown out the grounds for an appeal hearing, they have essentially upheld them. They basically said, ‘Yes, we understand that there is a basis here for an appeal – however, we are going to defer a decision on that until May 20’, when they called for a second hearing,” Hull said.

WikiLeaks published an extract from the ruling that lists the “satisfactory assurances” the US must provide for Assange’s extradition to be granted.

“The court has given US Gov 3 weeks to give satisfactory assurances: That Mr. Assange is permitted to rely on the First Amendment to the US constitution; not prejudiced at trial by reason of his nationality; and that the death penalty is not imposed,” it wrote.

The US argues that WikiLeaks’s revelations imperilled the lives of agents and that there is no excuse for Assange’s criminality.

The Australian’s supporters hail him as an anti-establishment hero who is being persecuted for exposing US war crimes.

The US has retorted that the charges are for “indiscriminately and knowingly” publishing sources’ names and not his political opinions.

Should Assange eventually lose this latest appeal bid, he will have exhausted all UK appeals and would be set to enter the extradition process.

However, his team has previously indicated they will ask the European courts to intervene.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies