What Did Julian Assange Do? WikiLeaks Founder Faces 17 Espionage Charges

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange could soon be extradited from the United Kingdom to the United States where he faces 17 charges under the Espionage Act and a potential 175-year prison sentence.

U.K. Home Secretary Priti Patel approved Assange's extradition on Friday following a ruling by the country's Supreme Court in March that said his removal could go ahead. British courts had previously blocked efforts to extradite Assange, with a judge concluding in January 2021 that doing so would be "oppressive" because of his mental health and that it could possibly lead him to take his own life.

Following the Supreme Court ruling, Westminster Magistrates' Court in London ordered his extradition in April and sent the matter to Patel for final approval. Assange now has 14 days to appeal Patel's decision and WikiLeaks has said they will lodge an appeal. He's facing 17 charges of espionage and one charge of computer misuse.

Prosecutors allege that Assange unlawfully helped former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to steal thousands of classified diplomatic cables and military files, which were published by WikiLeaks in 2010. Assange founded the whistleblowing site in 2006.

Julian Assange Speaks in 2017
Julian Assange speaks to the media from the balcony of the Embassy Of Ecuador on May 19, 2017, in London, England. Assange was removed from the embassy in 2019 and his extradition to the U.S. was authorized on June 17, 2022. Jack Taylor/Getty Images

The U.S. said the publication of those documents put lives at risk. Authorities have also noted any sentence is likely to be significantly less than the 175 years that Assange's lawyers have suggested he could receive.

The documents in question related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and revealed that the U.S. had killed hundreds of civilians in Afghanistan in previously undisclosed incidents. The leaked files also showed that 66,000 civilians had been killed by Iraqi forces and that prisoners had been tortured.

Assange has always denied any wrongdoing and his supporters have called for him to be exonerated, arguing that his actions were journalism and in the public interest. His wife, Stella Assange, reiterated that position on Friday, saying it "is only the beginning of a new legal battle."

"Julian did nothing wrong," she said. "He has committed no crime and is not a criminal. He is a journalist and a publisher, and he is being punished for doing his job."

In November 2010, authorities in Sweden sought Assange's extradition over allegations of rape, which he has denied. He was detained by British authorities in December on a European arrest warrant and a court ordered his extradition in February 2011.

Assange appealed against the decision but when his appeal was rejected by the Supreme Court in June 2012, he took refuge in Ecuador's London embassy, where he remained for seven years until the country revoked his asylum status. Following his removal from the embassy in 2019, Assange was imprisoned for violating bail. It was in that year that U.S. Department of Justice requested his extradition, which had until recently been blocked by the courts.

Swedish authorities dropped their investigation into Assange in 2019, arguing that the evidence was not strong enough to bring charges and citing the passage of time.