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Biden considering whether to end prosecution of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange

US president Joe Biden says he is considering requests by Australia to end the prosecution of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange under espionage and computer fraud charges

President Joe Biden said today that the US administration is considering a request by the Australian government to end the prosecution of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who faces extradition after publishing leaked US government documents.

Biden’s comment follows interventions by the Australian prime minister, Anthony Albanese, and a vote in Australia’s lower house in February calling for the US and the UK to bring legal proceedings against Assange to a close so he can return home to his family in Australia.

Assange, who has been held on remand in London’s Belmarsh high-security prison for five years, faces 18 counts under the US Espionage Act and the US Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and could face a maximum prison sentence of 175 years if he is extradited to the US.

The US president was speaking to journalists in the White House press pool during a visit by Japan’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida. “We’re considering it,” Biden said in response to a question about Australia’s request that he end Assange’s prosecution.

Biden’s intervention follows a decision by the High Court in London to allow the WikiLeaks founder to appeal against extradition if the US government fails to give assurances that he will not be subject to the death penalty. The US government has also been asked for assurances that Assange will be granted free speech rights under the First Amendment of the US Constitution and that he will not receive an unfair trial because of his nationality.

The prosecution of Assange under US espionage and computer hacking laws has led to warnings from major news outlets and campaign groups that his extradition would set a legal precedent that would have a chilling effect on the work of journalists.

Two judges rejected Assange’s arguments that he cannot be extradited for political offences in a 66-page verdict on 26 March. They found that, although the UK-US Extradition Treaty prohibits extradition for political reasons, Parliament had not chosen to incorporate the prohibition into the 2003 Extradition Act.

In 2017, then CIA director Mike Pompeo described WikiLeaks as a “non-state hostile intelligence service” that had acted in the interests of states hostile to the US, including Russia. A later investigation by Yahoo News disclosed that the CIA had discussed plans to abduct Assange and potentially assassinate him after speaking to 30 former US intelligence and national security officials.

The March court verdict found that the charges against Assange were limited to the publication of documents – supplied by US Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning in 2010 – that identified human intelligence sources. “There is a strong public interest in protecting the identities of human intelligence sources, and no countervailing public interest justification for publication has been identified,” it said.

There were strong reasons to conclude that the applicant’s activities did not accord with the “tenets of responsible journalism”, the judges found.

The prosecution has been criticised by the National Union of Journalists, the Press Freedom Foundation and major news publishers.

Read more about Julian Assange’s extradition case

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