Julian Assange Can Appeal Against Extradition Order: A Brief History Of His Legal Battle

May 20, ruling is a major victory for Assange, who has been fighting US government’s attempts of extradition for many years now. He has been in the high security Belmarsh in London since his arrest in 2019.

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A Julian Assange supporter protests in front of Westminster Magistrates Court, in April, 2024. Photo: Peter Nicholls/Getty Images

A UK High Court on May 20, granted WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, an opportunity to appeal against extradition order by United Kingdom (UK) to United States (US). Assange’s case has been seen by many across the world as an attempt to curtail press freedom by the US government.

May 20, ruling is a major victory for Assange, who has been fighting US government’s attempts of extradition for many years now. 

What are the charges against Assange

Julian Assange via WikiLeaks released thousands of classified US military documents and some visuals. The documents and visuals were related to US military operations held during war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some of these leaks revealed killings of civilians in US military actions which were not reported.

In 2010, WikiLeaks released a classified video of a US airstrike from 2007 in Baghdad, Afghanistan. The footage was from inside a US helicopter which fired on civilians; the strike ‘indiscriminately’ killed more than dozen civilians including two Reuters staff members. Reuters had requested US government for the footage under the Freedom of Information Act, but the request was denied. Assange was in Sweden around the time the video was released.

The classified information released by WikiLeaks made basis for many critiques of US actions in Afghanistan and Iraq to reiterate their claims of US war crimes.

In 2019, the US Department of Justice charged Assange under the Espionage Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. It has made several attempts since then to extradite Assange to US and put him on trial.

The US Department of Justice described the leaks as "one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States". His lawyers claim if extradited Assange will face imprisonment of over 170 years.

Asylum and Arrest

In 2010, Swedish authorities charged Assange of rape and sexual molestation of two women. He was in the UK by then and denied the accusations calling them politically motivated. Sweden had made request for his extradition.

In 2012, Assange applied for asylum in Ecuador embassy in London when a UK court had granted his extradition to Sweden in the multiple sexual offence cases. He was granted asylum by Ecuador and he stayed there until 2019 when the newly elected president of Ecuador asked him to leave the embassy for ‘discourteous behaviour’.

He was arrested by British police inside Ecuadorian embassy and was tried for not surrendering in the matter of his extradition to Sweden. He was sentenced with 50 weeks in prison. Since then he has been in the high security Belmarsh in London.

Meanwhile, in 2015, sexual molestation charges in all cases were dropped as the statute of limitation had run out. In 2019, after his arrest in London, the rape case was also dropped on account of ‘too much time had lapsed’ which had affected the case. All through the process Assange and his supporters had maintained that the attempt to extradite him to Sweden was a pretext to his eventual extradition to US.

Assange’s Struggle against US Attempt of Extradition

In 2019, after officially indicting Assange for 18 charges under Espionage Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the US government started the extradition process with its UK counterpart.

In 2021, UK High Court granted the US’ request for extradition while dismissing claims by his lawyer that considering his poor mental health he might be a threat to his own safety.

In 2022, Supreme Court upheld the High Court’s decision to grant extradition to US. The then UK home secretary, Priti Patel, confirmed the extradition order.

However, Assange once again approached the High Court. In March 2024, Judges Victoria Sharp and Jeremy Johnson said the US must guarantee that Assange, who is Australian, “is afforded the same First Amendment protections as a United States citizen, and that the death penalty is not imposed”.

On May 20, 2024, Assange’s lawyers questioned the assurance given by the US government and termed it as “blatantly inadequate”. The court ruled in his favour and permitted him to appeal against the extradition order.

The High Court ruling in favour of Assange means he will be able to challenge US assurances at a full hearing over how his prospective trial in America would be conducted and whether his right to free speech would be infringed on being extradited. His appeal is expected to be heard sometime next year.

Meanwhile in April this year, US president Joe Biden had said that he is considering a request from Australia to drop the decade-long U.S. push to prosecute WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for publishing a trove of American classified documents.

(With inputs from PTI)