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Wikileaks founder Julian Assange gets major relief, allowed to appeal extradition to US

The British government in 2022 ordered the extradition of Assange to the United States to face spying charges, a move thoroughly opposed by many of his supporters. Assange faces 18 charges in the US, mostly of espionage, for releasing hundreds of thousands of classified US documents.

Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee London Published on: May 21, 2024 8:37 IST
Julian assange extradition, Wikileaks
Image Source : REUTERS A banner in support of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange's fight against extradition to the US.

London: In a major relief for Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, London's High Court on Monday gave him provisional permission to appeal against his extradition to the United States, after arguing that he might not be able to rely on his right to free speech in a US court. The 52-year-old Australia-born Assange is wanted in the US on 18 charges, almost all under the Espionage Act after Wikileaks' mass release of secret US documents.

The High Court had in March granted him provisional permission to appeal on grounds that he might be discriminated against as a foreign national, but invited the US to submit assurances. After Monday's hearing, two senior judges said Assange's argument that he might not be able to rely on the US First Amendment right to free speech deserved a full appeal, which is unlikely to be held for months.

Hundreds of Assange's supporters who had massed outside the court cheered and sang after his appeal was allowed, as they tied yellow ribbons to iron railings, held placards and shouted "Free, free Julian Assange". Assange himself was not present, which his lawyer said was for health reasons. His wife Stella said he was "obviously relieved" after the verdict as he had not been able to sleep.

Calls for US to drop case against Assange

In April, US President Joe Biden said he was considering Australia's request to drop the prosecution of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who had released troves of confidential US classified documents and is battling extradition to the United States. Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has long opposed Assange's detention and backed a resolution calling for his return to Australia.

"I hope that the US administration looks at this case and now... considers it should just be dropped," Stella said on Monday. "The signals should be clear that it's time to drop it." The US Justice Department declined to comment on a pending judicial matter. Assange's legal team said he could have been put on a plane to the US within 24 hours had the ruling gone against him, ending 13 years of legal battles in the UK.

US prosecutors had told the court Assange could "seek to rely" upon the First Amendment protections granted to US citizens, and would not be discriminated against because of his nationality. "We say this is a blatantly inadequate assurance," Assange's lawyer Edward Fitzgerald told the judges. The court also concluded that Assange's appeal should apply to all 18 counts, not only three, as lawyers for the US had argued.

What is the case against Assange?

The British government in 2022 ordered the extradition of Assange to the United States to face spying charges. Assange's extradition was put on hold in March after London's High Court said the US must provide assurances he would not face the death penalty. WikiLeaks released hundreds of thousands of classified US military documents on Washington's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq along with swathes of diplomatic cables.

In April 2010 it published a classified video showing a 2007 US helicopter attack that killed a dozen people in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, including two Reuters news staff. US authorities say Assange's actions with WikiLeaks were reckless, damaged national security, and endangered the lives of agents. Supporters and lawyers for Assange argue that he was acting as a journalist and is entitled to First Amendment protections of freedom of speech for publishing documents that exposed US military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As the legal case dragged on, Assange's global supporters called the prosecution a travesty, an assault on journalism and free speech, and revenge for causing embarrassment. Assange has been held variously under house arrest since 2010. If he had been extradited, Assange would have likely faced a sentence of up to 175 years in a maximum security prison. Multiple rights groups, leading media organizations and the leaders of countries including Australia, Mexico and Brazil have also urged that charges against Assange be dropped.

(with inputs from agencies)

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