Julian Assange's Fate Takes A Twist: New Court Decision Could Change Everything

By Jennifer Wentworth | Monday, 20 May 2024 09:20 PM
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In a significant development in the ongoing legal saga of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the High Court has granted him the opportunity to appeal his extradition to the United States.

This decision comes after the U.S. authorities provided assurances that Assange would not face the death penalty if extradited.

Assange, 52, is facing prosecution in the U.S. for his alleged involvement in a conspiracy to obtain and disclose national defense information. This follows the publication of hundreds of thousands of leaked documents related to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. His legal team had previously sought permission to challenge a judge’s dismissal of his case to prevent extradition, a request that was partially granted by Dame Victoria Sharp and Mr Justice Johnson last month.

The judges dismissed most of Assange’s legal arguments but stated that unless the U.S. provided "satisfactory" assurances, he would be allowed to appeal on three grounds. These assurances include protection under the First Amendment, which safeguards freedom of speech in the U.S., a guarantee that he would not be "prejudiced at trial" due to his nationality, and a promise that the death penalty would not be imposed.

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During a hearing on Monday, the High Court was informed that the U.S. authorities had provided these assurances, with Assange’s legal team accepting the promise not to impose the death penalty. Assange, however, was not present at the hearing due to health reasons, according to his barrister Edward Fitzgerald KC.

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Outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London, dozens of Assange"s supporters gathered, holding banners and signs in a show of solidarity. Lawyers representing the U.S. argued that Assange"s appeal should be denied, citing the assurances provided in a note from the U.S. embassy in London.

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James Lewis KC, representing the U.S., stated in written submissions that Assange would be entitled to the "full panoply of due process trial rights" if extradited, including the right to raise and rely on the First Amendment as a defense. However, Assange’s wife, Stella Assange, previously referred to the U.S. assurances as "blatant weasel words", and Mr. Fitzgerald described most of the promises as "blatantly inadequate".

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In written submissions, Mr. Fitzgerald argued that while the assurance over the death penalty was "an unambiguous Executive promise", the other assurances did not provide any reliable promise as to future action. He stressed the need to conclusively remove the risk that Assange would be prevented from relying on the First Amendment on grounds of nationality.

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Assange’s legal battle has been a long and complex one. In January 2021, then-district judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled that Assange should not be extradited to the U.S., citing a real and "oppressive" risk of suicide. However, she ruled against him on all other issues. Later that year, U.S. authorities won their High Court bid to overturn this block, paving the way towards Assange"s extradition.

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Assange has been detained in the high-security Belmarsh Prison in southeast London since April 2019. He was arrested after spending seven years in Ecuador’s London embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faced accusations of sexual assault that were eventually dropped. The U.S., however, continued to seek his extradition, accusing him of publishing some 700,000 confidential documents related to U.S. military and diplomatic activities.

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The United States is attempting to convict Assange under the 1917 Espionage Act, which could potentially result in a 175-year prison sentence. Assange’s supporters have expressed concern about his health and treatment, and the Council of Europe voiced similar concerns this week.

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The U.S. indictment of Assange between 2018 and 2020 has faced significant domestic and international pressure to be dropped, particularly under the administration of President Joe Biden. Recently, Biden indicated that the United States was considering a request from Australia to drop the charges.

Rebecca Vincent, of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), said, "President Biden has the chance still to be the President who put an end to this, who acted in the interest of press freedom in journalism."

The hearing before Dame Victoria Sharp and Mr Justice Johnson is due to conclude on Monday. The outcome will determine the next steps in Assange’s protracted legal battle and could have significant implications for press freedom and the treatment of whistleblowers.

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