Getty Images

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange faces last appeal against ‘political’ extradition

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is seeking leave to appeal against extradition to the US in a case that could have chilling implications for journalists reporting on national security

Julian Assange faces what may be his final appeal against extradition to the US after five years of being held in Belmarsh high-security prison, in a case that is expected to have ramifications for journalists and publishers that publish classified government information.

Lawyers for the 52-year-old WikiLeaks founder will argue that he should be granted permission to appeal against extradition to the US, where he faces a maximum jail time of 175 years in what his legal advisors argue is an overtly political prosecution by the US.

Speaking at a press conference in London today, his wife Stella Assange said the WikiLeaks founder was unlikely to survive incarceration in the US. “The situation is extremely grave,” she said. “It’s a complete unknown, but the reality is that he could be on a plane within days.”

The WikiLeaks founder’s health has suffered during five years of incarceration at Belmarsh prison. “His health is declining, mental and physical. If he is extradited he will die,” she said.

Julian Assange is charged with 17 counts under the US Espionage Act 1917, first introduced to prosecute German spies in the First World War, and one count under the US Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, over WikiLeaks’ 2010 publication of documents leaked by US Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning.

The Manning documents revealed US war crimes, torture, assassinations, the list of prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay, and US rules for airstrikes. “Julian Assange is being extradited for reporting war crimes,” said his wife.

Seeking leave to appeal

If Assange is successful in a two-day court hearing next week, his lawyers will appeal a 2021 ruling by district court judge Vanessa Baraitser, which they argue wrongly rejected arguments that the WikiLeaks founder was being prosecuted for his political opinions.

They will also argue that the US-UK extradition treaty prohibits extradition for political offences, including obtaining and publishing state secrets. They will also seek to introduce fresh evidence about CIA discussions to kidnap and assassinate Assange.

WikiLeaks lawyers plan to apply to the European Court of Human Rights for a Rule 39 order to prevent the UK extraditing Assange if the appeal is unsuccessful.

The UK would not be able to violate a Rule 39 order without violating its obligations under international law and its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, Stella Assange told the press conference.

Espionage Act raises concerns for journalists

Supporters argue that the extradition – which represents the first time the Espionage Act has been used against a journalist and publisher – will pose an “existential threat” for investigative journalists who publish classified US material.

WikiLeaks editor Kristinn Hrafnsson said the case – if it is allowed to go ahead – would set a precedent that could open up journalists in Europe to prosecution for publishing information from leaked US government documents.

Photo of WikiLeaks editor Kristinn Hrafnsson and Julian Assange’s wife Stella at a press conference ahead of the hearing
WikiLeaks editor Kristinn Hrafnsson and Julian Assange’s wife Stella at a press conference ahead of the hearing

“It cannot be underestimated the effect it will have. Citizens in the EU can face prison time in the US. That means no journalists are safe,” he said.

The US government has made it clear that Assange would not benefit from rights under the First Amendment as he is not a US citizen.

Political case

For Assange’s supporters, the case is political and needs a political solution.

In Australia, federal MPs voted overwhelmingly this week to urge the US and the UK to allow Assange to return to his home country. Australia’s attorney general has also raised the Assange case with his US counterpart.

“It’s a political case from start to end,” said Stella Assange. “The subject matter of the case, the state committing war crimes, is political. The extradition is politically motivated. The statute under which Julian is indicted, the Espionage Act, is political. It needs a political solution.”

“It’s a political case from start to end. The subject matter of the case, the state committing war crimes, is political. The extradition is politically motivated. The statute under which Julian is indicted, the Espionage Act, is political. It needs a political solution”
Stella Assange

The politics encompass the director of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, who announced in one of his first speeches in 2017 that he would embark on a long-term campaign against WikiLeaks and Assange.

“It is time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is – a non-state hostile intelligence service,” said Pompeo.

Yahoo News, which spoke to 30 former US intelligence and national security officials, later disclosed that the CIA had discussed plans to abduct Assange and potentially to assassinate him.

According to Hrafnsson, Pompeo’s description of WikiLeaks as “a non-state hostile intelligence service”, was a “highly thought-out legal definition which was used to justify the plan to assassinate Julian Assange”.

Assange at risk of suicide

Stella Assange said she had last been able to visit her husband on 3 February 2023 and was “very concerned about how he is doing physically”.

“He has aged prematurely. He is only 52. He is on medication,” she said. “In October 2021, he had a mini-stroke and has all sort of health problems from being in a three-by-two-metre cell.”

She said assurances by the US government that Assange would not face special administrative measures or be held at a maximum-security prison are conditional and do not prevent the US from holding Assange in solitary confinement.

They license the US to put him in the very conditions that district court judge Baraitser found would drive him to kill himself, she said. “Nothing has changed.”

WikiLeaks published the Vault 7 leaks in 2017, which disclosed the CIA’s hacking capabilities. The alleged source of the leak, Joshua Schulte, was held in special administrative measures, which Stella Assange said amounted to torture.

“He has been isolated in his cell and when he’s taken out to exercise, it’s into this space, as big as a parking lot. When he has been able to access classified information to mount his defence, he has been placed in a room where he’s had to urinate and defecate into a corner.”

She said that she feared Julian Assange would suffer a similar fate if extradited. “Julian will be put in a hole, if he is extradited, there’s no doubt about that. He will be put in a hole so far and deep in the ground that I don’t think I’ll ever see him again,” she said.

Stella Assange told the press conference that she and her husband were trying to protect their two children from the impact of the extradition. “They don’t know, frankly,” she said. “We don’t think it’s fair on them to know what is really going on.”

Read more on Hackers and cybercrime prevention

Data Center
Data Management