U.S., Australia and U.K. Argue Over Julian Assange as U.S. Seeks His Extradition

The U.S. on Wednesday asked Britain's High Court to reverse a ruling that Julian Assange shouldn't be extradited to America amid continued arguments over the Australia native and WikiLeaks founder, the Associated Press reported.

District Judge Vanessa Baraitser denied a request from the U.S. in January for Assange's extradition to face spying charges regarding the publication of secret military documents a decade earlier on his site.

Baraitser made her decision based on Assange's mental condition, saying that he was likely to commit suicide if transferred to the U.S. and held under harsh conditions. James Lewis, an attorney for the U.S. government, objected to Baraitser's ruling on the state of his mental health.

He also argued that Assange wouldn't be kept in a top-security prison as he awaits trial or face harsh conditions, and then he would be sent back to Australia to serve time if convicted. Assange's lawyer, Edward Fitzgerald, countered in a written submission that Australia hadn't yet agreed to take in Assange, AP reported.

Even if the country agreed, the legal processes in the U.S. could take a decade, forcing Assange to wait "in extreme isolation in a U.S. prison," he said.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Julian Assange
The U.S. on Wednesday asked Britain’s High Court to reverse a ruling that Julian Assange shouldn’t be extradited to America amid continued arguments over the Australia native and WikiLeaks founder. Above, Assange talks to members of the media during a news conference in London on October 24, 2011. Lefteris Pitarakis/AP Photo

Fitzgerald accused U.S. lawyers of seeking to "minimize the severity of Mr Assange's mental disorder and suicide risk."

Several dozen pro-Assange protesters rallied outside London's neo-Gothic Royal Courts of Justice before the hearing, which is scheduled to last two days.

Assange, who is being held at London's high-security Belmarsh Prison, had been expected to attend by video link, but Fitzgerald said Assange had been put on a high dose of medication and "doesn't feel able to attend the proceedings."

A video link later showed Assange appearing to listen to the hearing at times. His lawyers say he has experienced a number of physical and mental health problems over the years.

Assange's partner, Stella Moris, said outside court that she was "very concerned for Julian's health. I saw him on Saturday. He's very thin."

The two justices hearing the appeal—who include England's most senior judge, Lord Chief Justice Ian Burnett—are not expected to give their ruling for several weeks. That will likely not end the epic legal saga, however, since the losing side can seek to appeal to the U.K. Supreme Court.

U.S. prosecutors have indicted Assange on 17 espionage charges and one charge of computer misuse over WikiLeaks' publication of thousands of leaked military and diplomatic documents. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison, though Lewis said "the longest sentence ever imposed for this offense is 63 months."

American prosecutors say Assange unlawfully helped U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning steal classified diplomatic cables and military files that WikiLeaks later published. Lawyers for Assange argue that he was acting as a journalist and is entitled to First Amendment freedom of speech protections for publishing documents that exposed U.S. military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In her January judgment, Baraitser rejected defense arguments that Assange faces a politically motivated American prosecution that would override free-speech protections, and she said the U.S. judicial system would give him a fair trial.

Assange, 50, has been in prison since he was arrested in April 2019 for skipping bail during a separate legal battle. Before that he spent seven years holed up inside Ecuador's London embassy, where he fled in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden to face allegations of rape and sexual assault.

Sweden dropped the sex crimes investigations in November 2019 because so much time had elapsed, but Assange remains in prison. The judge who blocked extradition in January ordered that he must stay in custody during any U.S. appeal, ruling that the Australian citizen "has an incentive to abscond" if he is freed.

WikiLeaks supporters say testimony from witnesses during the extradition hearing that Assange was spied on while in the embassy by a Spanish security firm at the behest of the CIA—and that there was even talk of abducting or killing him—undermines U.S. claims he will be treated fairly.

Moris, who has two young sons with Assange, said it was "completely unthinkable that the U.K. courts could agree" to extradition.

"I hope the courts will end this nightmare, that Julian is able to come home soon and that wise heads prevail," she said.

Assange Extradition Protestors
U.K. District Judge Vanessa Baraitser denied a request from the U.S. in January for Julian Assange’s extradition to face spying charges regarding the publication of secret military documents a decade earlier on his site WikiLeaks. Above, Assange's partner, Stella Moris (fourth from left) and WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson (fifth from left) join supporters during a march in London on October 23, 2021. Alberto Pezzali/AP Photo