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Supreme Court refuses Julian Assange extradition appeal

The case will be referred to the home secretary Priti Patel to make a decision. The WikiLeaks founder has yet to say whether he will file further appeals

The Supreme Court has refused to hear an application by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to appeal against extradition to the US.

The country is seeking to prosecute Assange under the US Espionage Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act after publishing US military documents leaked by former US Army intelligence officer Chelsea Manning.

A panel of three supreme court judges refused to hear the appeal on Monday after finding that “the application does not raise an arguable point of law”.

The case will now be passed to home secretary Priti Patel, who will make a decision whether to approve the extradition.

The 50-year-old’s legal team has four weeks to make legal submissions to the home secretary.

Assange’s lawyers, led by solicitors Birnberg Peirce, asked the Supreme Court to consider the legal question: in what circumstances can an appellate court receive assurances from a requesting state which were not before the court of first instance in extradition proceedings?

The firm said in a statement that it regretted that the Supreme Court had not taken into account “the troubling circumstances” in which a state, such as the US, could offer “caveated guarantees” after a full evidential extradition hearing.

London’s High Court found in December that the WikiLeaks founder could be extradited after the US government gave formal diplomatic assurances over Assange’s treatment in the US court system.

Their decision overturned a finding by district judge Vanessa Baraitser at Westminster Magistrate’s Court that Assange had mental health conditions that would put him at risk in the harsh conditions he would face in US prisons.

Diplomatic assurances

The US gave assurances in a diplomatic note on 5 February 2021 that Assange would not be subject to special administrative measures (SAMS) or held at the ADX facility – a maximum-security prison in Florence, Colorado, if extradition went ahead.

The assurances applied either pre-trial or after any conviction, unless Assange “committed any act in future” which rendered him liable to detention in those conditions.

The US also gave an undertaking that it would consent to an application by Assange to be transferred to Australia to serve his sentence, if convicted.

Assange would receive “appropriate clinical and psychological treatment as recommended by a qualified treating physician” in a US prison.

High Court judges gave Assange permission to appeal to the Supreme Court in January after three judges said the case raised a point of concern of general public importance.

Appeals likely

The WikiLeaks founder has the option to file a “cross appeal” on defence grounds rejected by judge Vanessa Baraitser during the original hearing in January 2021.

These could include arguments that the US-UK extradition treaty prohibits extradition for political offences, that extradition would breach Assange’s right to a fair trial, and that the case against him represents an abuse of process.  

An appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg is also likely.

Espionage Act

The case represents the first time that the US Espionage Act 1917, originally enacted to prosecute spies during the First World War, has been used to bring charges against an individual for receiving and publishing classified information.

The allegations centre on hundreds of thousands of documents leaked to WikiLeaks by Manning in 2010 and 2011.

They included the rules of engagement for the Iraq War and the “collateral murder” video which showed US soldiers laughing as they fired at unarmed civilians in Iraq.

Assange has been charged in a US indictment with 17 counts under the Espionage Act for receiving and publishing classified government documents and one count under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

The charges could carry a maximum sentence of 175 years, though prosecutors have argued that any sentence is likely to be lower.

Political decision

Rebecca Vincent, director of operations and campaigns at Reporters Without Borders said the Assange case was overwhelmingly in the public interest and deserved review by the highest court in the UK.

“After two full years of extradition proceedings, once again Assange’s fate has become a political decision. We call on the Home Office to act in the interest of journalism and press freedom by refusing extradition and releasing Assange from prison without further delay,” she said.

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