Julian Assange faces judgment day in years-long fight to stay out of US court

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will face a British High Court on Monday to ultimately decide whether the accused classified information leaker will be extradited to the U.S. after more than a decade of legal battles.

Assange has been in British custody since 2019 after the Ecuadorian government revoked his political asylum status and kicked him from their London embassy after seven years. He faces 18 charges in the U.S. over WikiLeaks’s publication of hundreds of thousands of classified military and intelligence documents in 2010.

American prosecutors claim the Australian worked with military intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to steal the documents — including secret diplomatic cables and military information on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and distribute them online. Manning was convicted and served seven years in prison for her role in the scheme.

Supporters have painted Assange as a victim of political persecution, targeted for his work as a journalist because it shed a poor light on the U.S. military. The leaked information included records of airstrikes in Iraq and Afghanistan that killed civilians.

“Julian has been indicted for receiving, possessing and communicating information to the public of evidence of war crimes committed by the U.S. government,” his wife, Stella Assange, told The Associated Press. “Reporting a crime is never a crime.”

Assange initially sought asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy to escape a Swedish rape investigation, and out of fear that he could be extradited to the U.S. for his WikiLeaks work. The rape investigation was later dropped in 2021, given the passing of time.

After serving a one-year sentence in U.K. prison for avoiding bail after he was arrested in 2019, a British judge initially blocked his extradition to the U.S. in 2021. The judge ruled that Assange was likely to kill himself if sent to the U.S., given the harsh conditions of the country’s prison system.

The British government finally allowed his extradition in 2022, which he appealed.

The crux of Monday’s High Court hearing is whether assurances from the U.S. government can overcome concerns for Assange’s well-being.

Stella Assange said the “so-called assurances” — including that prosecutors would not pursue the death penalty — were made up of “weasel words.”

WikiLeaks Editor-in-Chief Kristinn Hrafnsson said the judges had asked if Assange could rely on First Amendment protections.

“It should be an easy yes or no question,” Hrafnsson said. “The answer was, ‘He can seek to rely on First Amendment protections.’ That is a ‘no.’ So the only rational decision on Monday is for the judges to come out and say, ‘This is not good enough.’ Anything else is a judicial scandal.”

If the three-judge panel sides with Assange’s arguments and does not allow his extradition, it sets up years more of legal fighting. If the court allows his extradition, Assange’s legal team has said they will ask the European Court of Human Rights to intervene.

President Biden could also step in on the case, fulfilling an Australian government request to drop the charges and let Assange return to his home country. Biden said last month that he is “considering” the request.

Updated on May 20 at 5:32 a.m.

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