The British government on Friday ordered the extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the United States to face charges of spying, a milestone — but not the end — of a decade-long legal saga sparked by his website’s publication of classified U.S. documents.
Home Secretary Priti Patel signed the extradition order on Friday, her department said. It follows a British court ruling in April that Assange could be sent to the U.S.
The Home Office said in a statement that “the U.K. courts have not found that it would be oppressive, unjust or an abuse of process to extradite Mr. Assange.
“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 U.S. he will be treated appropriately, including in relation to his health.”
The decision is a big moment in Assange’s years-long battle to avoid facing trial in the U.S. — though not necessarily the end of the tale.
Assange has 14 days to appeal.
“Today is not the end of the fight. It is only the beginning of a new legal battle,” said Assange’s wife, Stella Assange. She said the U.K. decision marked “a dark day for press freedom and for British democracy.”
“Julian did nothing wrong,” she said. “He has committed no crime and is not a criminal. He is a journalist and a publisher, and he is being punished for doing his job.”
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A British judge approved the extradition in April, leaving the final decision to the government. The ruling came after a legal battle that went all the way to the U.K. Supreme Court.
The U.S. has asked British authorities to extradite Assange so he can stand trial on 17 charges of violating the Espionage Act and one charge of conspiring to commit unlawful computer intrusion over WikiLeaks’s publication of a huge trove of classified documents more than a decade ago. American prosecutors say Assange unlawfully helped U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning steal classified diplomatic cables and military files that WikiLeaks later published, putting lives at risk.
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Journalism organizations and human rights groups have called on Britain to refuse the extradition request.
Supporters and lawyers for Assange, 50, argue that he was acting as a journalist and is entitled to First Amendment protections of freedom of speech for publishing documents that exposed U.S. military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan. They argue that his case is politically motivated.
Barry Pollack, Assange’s U.S. lawyer, said it was “disappointing news that should concern anyone who cares about the First Amendment and the right to publish.”
Assange’s lawyers said they would mount a new legal challenge, and legal experts say the case could take months or even years more to conclude.
“We will appeal this all the way, if necessary to the European Court of Human Rights,” Assange attorney Jennifer Robinson said.
Robinson asked U.S. President Joe Biden to drop the charges brought against Assange during Donald Trump’s presidency, arguing they posed a “grave threat” to free speech.
Assange’s lawyers say he could face up to 175 years in jail if he is convicted in the U.S., though American authorities have said any sentence is likely to be much lower than that.
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Amnesty International secretary general Agnes Callamard said Friday that extraditing Assange “would put him at great risk and sends a chilling message to journalists the world over.”
“If the extradition proceeds, Amnesty International is extremely concerned that Assange faces a high risk of prolonged solitary confinement, which would violate the prohibition on torture or other ill treatment,” she said. “Diplomatic assurances provided by the U.S. that Assange will not be kept in solitary confinement cannot be taken on face value given previous history.”
Assange has been held at Britain’s high-security Belmarsh Prison in London since 2019, when he was arrested for skipping bail during a separate legal battle. Before that, he spent seven years inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden to face allegations of rape and sexual assault.
Sweden dropped the sex crimes investigations in November 2019 because too much time had elapsed.
In March, Assange and his wife, who have two sons together, married in a prison ceremony.