Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, can be extradited to the US to stand trial over charges of acting illegally in obtaining and publishing classified documents, the High Court in London ruled on Friday.
The court overturned a controversial decision by London’s Westminster magistrates court in January that Assange’s US extradition should be blocked because of risks to his mental health due to the harsh conditions in US prisons.
On Friday, the High Court ruled that Assange could be extradited and said the judges hearing the case had accepted assurances from the US government about the prison conditions in which Assange would be held. Lord Ian Burnett, the Lord Chief Justice and one of two judges who heard the case, ruled that America’s pledges were “sufficient to determine this appeal in the USA’s favour”.
The US has promised that Assange will not be held in a particular maximum security prison in Colorado and that if he is convicted he can be transferred to his home country of Australia to serve out his sentence.
Assange’s case will now be sent to Priti Patel, the UK home secretary, who will decide whether he should be extradited.
The US wants Assange to face trial on one charge of computer hacking and 17 charges of violating the 1917 Espionage Act, relating to one of the biggest leaks of classified material in history. If found guilty, Assange would face up to 175 years in jail.
The US charges stem from WikiLeaks’ publication in 2010 of a huge cache of secret documents passed to him by Chelsea Manning, a former US military intelligence analyst.
The trove included 90,000 activity reports relating to the war in Afghanistan, 400,000 relating to the Iraq war and 250,000 US diplomatic cables. It was one of the largest leaks of classified material and caused embarrassment to the US government.
The High Court move is a blow to Assange, who remains in custody at a top security London prison, although he still has a number of chances to appeal against the decision.
“We will appeal this decision at the earliest possible moment,” his fiancée Stella Moris said on Friday. She described the High Court’s ruling as “dangerous and misguided” and a “grave miscarriage of justice”.
Kristinn Hrafnsson, editor in chief of WikiLeaks, said: “Julian’s life is once more under grave threat, and so is the right of journalists to publish material that governments and corporations find inconvenient.”
Washington has accused Assange of putting US intelligence sources at risk by publishing unredacted documents but his defence lawyers have argued that there is no evidence any individual was harmed.
Assange’s legal team had contended that the WikiLeaks founder’s prosecution under the US Espionage Act set a dangerous precedent for press freedom and criminalised investigative journalism. They argued that he was working as a journalist when he obtained and published the leaked material and should be covered by freedom of speech protections.
Assange has been held at the London jail since April 2019 when he was sentenced for breaking bail conditions. He had previously spent seven years in the Ecuadorean embassy after skipping bail in 2012 when he was due to be extradited to Sweden on unrelated sexual assault charges, which were subsequently dropped. He was arrested and forcibly removed from the diplomatic mission by British police in 2019.