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Sunday, April 21, 2024

Julian Assange Is Running Out of Options

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange faces a dwindling number of options after the UK government approved his extradition to the United States on Friday. The decision is the latest chapter in a prolonged legal battle that started when former military intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning leaked classified government documents about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which Assange published on WikiLeaks in 2010.

Friday’s decision, approved by UK home secretary Priti Patel, is the latest in a series of legal battles Assange has lost in his effort to remain in the UK. It’s a blow to Assange, who has spent the last decade either in hiding in Ecuador’s London embassy or in a UK prison. And his increasingly likely prosecution in US courts creates a precarious moment for First Amendment rights and the ability of news outlets to publish material deemed a threat to national security.

“This is a dark day for Press freedom and for British democracy,” WikiLeaks said in a statement shared on Twitter. “Julian did nothing wrong. He has committed no crime and is not a criminal. He is a journalist and a publisher.” Wikileaks said Assange intends to appeal.

“Assange may have at least one more avenue of appeal, so he may not be on a flight to the United States just yet,” Trevor Timm, executive director of the group Freedom of Press, said in a statement. “But this is one more troubling development in a case that could upend journalists’ rights in the 21st century.” The charges against Assange include 17 under the Espionage Act and one under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Friday’s ruling overturns a December 2021 decision that declared Assange could not be extradited because subjecting him to US incarceration could increase the risk of suicide. The judge has accepted US assurances that Assange won’t face solitary confinement and will have access to psychological treatment.

“The UK courts have not found that it would be oppressive, unjust, or an abuse of process to extradite Mr. Assange,” a spokesperson for the British Home Office told WIRED. “Nor have they found that extradition would be incompatible with his human rights, including his right to a fair trial and to freedom of expression, and that whilst in the US he will be treated appropriately, including in relation to his health.”

Assange’s legal team has 14 days to appeal, according to the Home Office. His next step, now that the defense’s argument based on Assange’s suicide risk has been rejected, would likely be to focus on the other arguments his team has made against extradition, such as the threat it poses to press freedom and the political bias against Assange from United States law enforcement, given that Assange has been a thorn in the side of the US executive branch for over a decade.

“I think there’s a lot of roads to run here,” says Naomi Colvin, UK/ Ireland director at the advocacy group Blueprint for Free Speech. She points out that even if these additional arguments fail to sway the UK judicial system, Assange can also appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, arguing that extradition would violate the UK’s commitment to human rights treaties. In yet another option, Assange’s team could demand a judicial review that would challenge the political side of Patel’s decision specifically, Colvin adds.

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Assange has faced charges in the United States since April of 2019, when the US Department of Justice indicted him for hacking crimes: He was accused of conspiring with Manning to steal Department of Defense secrets. That initial indictment centered on accusations that Assange had actively helped the young private crack a password in order to gain access to a restricted part of a military network—a carefully crafted charge that seemed designed to distinguish Assange from traditional journalists and brand him instead as a cybercriminal.

Just a month later, however, the Justice Department veered into a more aggressive strategy, unsealing a superseding indictment against Assange that accused him of violating the Espionage Act, a 100-year-old law against publishing classified information. That new charge had already been levied against leakers like Manning and Edward Snowden, but using it against a journalist like Assange—a recipient and publisher of classified leaks rather than a source of them—represented a new and highly controversial move for US law enforcement.

​​“For the first time in the history of our country, the government has brought criminal charges against a publisher for the publication of truthful information,” Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, told WIRED at the time. “This is an extraordinary escalation of the Trump administration’s attacks on journalism and a direct assault on the First Amendment.”

Manning did not immediately respond to WIRED’s request for comment.

As it has evolved, Assange’s case has been buffeted by politics. His case was dropped by former US president Barack Obama’s administration before being resurrected under Donald Trump. The administration of President Joe Biden has continued the case against Assange, but Blue Print for Free Speech’s Colvin hopes that the Biden White House may be less committed than Trump’s to extradition. “It may well be that within the Biden administration, there are people who would quite like this to go away,” says Colvin. “I don’t think that’s impossible by any stretch of the imagination.”

In the meantime, Assange’s avenues of escape from an American jail are narrowing. Unless the UK government or the US Department of Justice reverses course, his case may soon be moving across the Atlantic. And if it does, a journalistic publisher of information—however radical or controversial of a publisher Assange may be—will for the first time face spying charges in a US court.

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