What's Next for Julian Assange? This Is What Extradition Is, How It Works and How Long It Takes

Julian Assange gestures to the media from a police vehicle on his arrival at Westminster Magistrates court on April 11 in London, England. Assange faces the relatively minor charge of skipping bail in the U.K., but fears he will be extradited to the U.S. for allegedly taking part in a leak of classified documents. Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Two recent high-profile international disputes—the arrest Thursday of an Australian whistleblower in the United Kingdom and Canada's decision to send a top-ranking Chinese telecommunications executive to the United States to face charges—have highlighted the legal process of extradition, a potent tool wielded by Washington around the world.

Extradition is defined by the Justice Department as "the formal process by which a person found in one country is surrendered to another country for trial or punishment."

Many instances of extradition are mundane for countries with bilateral treaties, but certain cases can prove controversial if tied to larger political disputes or international tensions, such as those of WikiLeaks' Julian Assange and Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou.

The process of extraditing a U.S. national abroad begins with a request approved by the Justice Department's Office of International Affairs and submitted by the State Department to the relevant foreign government. Each case can take months or even years to process, especially in the likely event that the individual appeals to the furthest extent of the local legal system. The U.S. has negotiated each treaty individually, so "no two are entirely identical," Samuel Witten of Arnold & Porter told Newsweek.

Witten, a former State Department deputy legal adviser who has offered testimony in regards to the U.S.-U.K. extradition treaty, described the document as "the legal framework" for determining whether an individual can be surrendered from one country to the other to face trial or prosecution.

"When it comes to a case in which the U.S. decides whether or not an individual is going to be extradited, this treaty is sort of the script," Witten said.

Julian Assange gestures to the media from a police vehicle on his arrival at Westminster Magistrates court on April 11 in London, England. Assange faces the relatively minor charge of skipping bail in the U.K., but fears he will be extradited to the U.S. for allegedly taking part in a leak of classified documents. Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Assange, who garnered international attention by releasing secret high-level communications and documents through his WikiLeaks site, published classified U.S. government information downloaded by former Army soldier Chelsea Manning in 2010. Manning was later tried and jailed for the incident, while Assange faced separate legal troubles over sexual assault allegations in Sweden that same year.

Assange denied the charges, saying he suspected them to be a politically motivated ploy for Sweden to extradite him to the U.S., where he feared he could face the death penalty. When London decided in 2012 to extradite Assange, the Australian took asylum in Ecuador's U.K. embassy. Even though Sweden ultimately dropped its case in 2017, Assange continued to face British charges of skipping bail and thus remained behind the embassy walls.

The WikiLeaks founder's nearly seven-year stay at the diplomatic compound came to an end Thursday when he was arrested, taken to court and found guilty of violating his bail terms. Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno rescinded Assange's asylum after accusing him of "aggressive and discourteous behavior," as well as "interfering in internal affairs of other states." He argued that he had assurance in writing from the U.K. that Assange "would not be extradited to a country where he could face torture or the death penalty," but concerns remained that the detained activist's rights were in jeopardy.

In November 2018, an apparent court filing mistake revealed that the U.S. had secretly charged Assange in connection with his alleged role in the 2010 Manning conspiracy. The Justice Department revealed Thursday that he "was arrested today in the United Kingdom pursuant to the U.S./U.K. Extradition Treaty, in connection with a federal charge of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion for agreeing to break a password to a classified U.S. government computer."

"Any prosecution by the United States of Mr. Assange for WikiLeaks' publishing operations would be unprecedented and unconstitutional, and would open the door to criminal investigations of other news organizations," Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, said in a statement.

"Moreover, prosecuting a foreign publisher for violating U.S. secrecy laws would set an especially dangerous precedent for U.S. journalists, who routinely violate foreign secrecy laws to deliver information vital to the public's interest," he said.

The United Nations' Working Group on Arbitrary Detention urged late last year that Assange be allowed to recover his freedom, noting that he "has already paid a high price for peacefully exercising his rights to freedom of opinion, expression and information, and to promote the right to truth in the public interest."

As Witten pointed out, the U.S.-U.K. treaty has a specific article against extraditing for any "political offense," though the political nature of the allegations would have to be proved in court. The document also specifically dealt with capital punishment, leaving the U.K. room to push the U.S. for a guarantee that it would not seek to execute Assange should he be extradited.

"When the offense for which extradition is sought is punishable by death under the laws in the Requesting State and is not punishable by death under the laws in the Requested State, the executive authority in the Requested State may refuse extradition unless the Requesting State provides an assurance that the death penalty will not be imposed or, if imposed, will not be carried out," Article 7 reads.

Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou leaves her Vancouver home with security detail to appear in British Columbia Supreme Court, in Vancouver on March 6. Meng, the Chinese telecom executive at the center of an escalating row between Ottawa and Beijing, faced a U.S. extradition request that has infuriated China, where several Canadians were recently arrested. DON MACKINNON/AFP/Getty Images

Meng's case has also been the subject of international controversy. The CFO of Huawei, China's largest company, was arrested in Vancouver, British Columbia, in December while transferring flights from Hong Kong to Mexico. While Meng was apprehended by Canadian authorities, she was charged by the U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of New York "with bank fraud, wire fraud, and conspiracy to commit bank and wire fraud."

In March, the Canadian Justice Department announced that it had "issued an Authority to Proceed, formally commencing an extradition process in the case of Ms. Meng Wanzhou."

Meng, who is under house arrest in Vancouver according to terms of her bail, has been accused of deceiving U.S. financial institutions regarding Huawei's alleged dealings with Iran, a country President Donald Trump has hit with sanctions. She has denied any wrongdoing.

Chinese officials have responded to the incident with outrage, warning that the charges appeared to be motivated by an ongoing trade war between Washington and Beijing. Tit-for-tat tariffs have cost both countries billions of dollars. While they have remained in communication in an attempt to resolve this feud, the Trump administration has continued to accuse China of unfair trade practices, such as currency manipulation and intellectual property theft.

"China's position on the case of Meng Wanzhou is clear-cut and firm," Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang said last month in response to news of Meng's extradition process. "The U.S. and Canada have abused their bilateral extradition agreement and arbitrarily taken compulsory measures on a Chinese citizen, which constitutes a serious violation of the legal rights and interests of the Chinese citizen. This is a severe political incident."

As for Assange, Russia has weighed in. The country took in whistleblower Edward Snowden—a former National Security Agency contractor who leaked a trove of documents about government eavesdropping programs—and has been critical of attempts to extradite Assange, who has been cast by Washington as part of a Moscow-led conspiracy to influence the 2016 U.S. election.

While Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov simply said that "we do hope, of course, that all his rights will be respected," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova remarked, "The hand of 'democracy' squeezes the throat of freedom."

Chimène Keitner, a professor at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law and a former counselor on international law to the State Department, told Newsweek she was "absolutely confident that the Canadian and U.K. legal systems have accorded, and will continue to accord, each of these suspects all of the rights and procedures to which they are entitled under domestic and international law."

However, she added that "diplomatic considerations could well enter into any final decision by these officials if the suspects are deemed extraditable."

A graphic created by the Council on Foreign Relations maps out the countries that have signed extradition treaties with the United States. Council on Foreign Relations/U.S. Department of State

Keitner said that "in both of these cases, we're likely looking at a matter of months at least, and most likely years, unless the United States for whatever reason decides to withdraw its request."

She added: "There is nothing unusual about requesting the extradition of a criminal suspect from another country to face trial in the United States for allegedly violating U.S. law. That said, the notoriety of Huawei, if not its CFO, and WikiLeaks, including Assange, certainly makes these cases much higher profile than the typical extradition request."

Keitner continued: "The circumstances under which each of these suspects was apprehended is also more dramatic than the typical arrest. In Meng's case, unexpected apprehension as she changed planes in Vancouver, and in Assange's case, expulsion from the Ecuadorian embassy in which he had taken refuge since 2012. Finally, each of these suspects has sought to cast the extradition requests as being politically motivated, which increases the diplomatic stakes and public interest in these cases."