(CN) — Putting stock in a promise that the cyber activist will not endure harsh U.S. prison conditions, a British appellate court ruled on Friday that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange can be extradited to the United States to face espionage charges.
The decision by the High Court of Justice in London leaves Assange facing the likelihood that he will be transferred to the U.S. and put on trial for helping expose alleged war crimes by American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Assange and his legal team still have more appeals at their disposal, but Friday's outcome is a major blow to efforts to stop his extradition. Still, the legal fight is far from over and is expected to be drawn out.
“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,” Kristinn Hrafnsson, the editor-in-chief at WikiLeaks, said of the ruling this morning.
Political events could, too, become a factor, with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and U.S. President Joe Biden both facing calls from human rights groups, journalism organizations, political groups and some national leaders to stop the prosecution against Assange. The 50-year-old editor was charged by the administration of former President Donald Trump, but Biden has also voiced support about putting Assange on trial.
Revered by many free-speech advocates, human rights activists and journalists, Assange's extradition has become a major showdown over human rights, free speech and the protection of journalism in the internet age.
Christophe Deloire, the secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders, blasted the ruling and said it could “prove historic for all the wrong reasons.”
“We fully believe that Julian Assange has been targeted for his contributions to journalism,” Deloire said.
In January, District Court Judge Vanessa Baraitser in London blocked extradition efforts after deciding Assange would be at risk of committing suicide if he was thrown into solitary confinement in the U.S.
Baraitser nevertheless ruled against Asssange's other arguments against extradition, such as that he will not get a fair trial and the U.S. is pursuing him for political motives.
After Baraitser blocked his extradition, the U.S. provided assurances that Assange would not be placed in the most severe prison conditions if is he handed over to U.S. custody and that, if convicted, he could serve his prison sentence in Australia, where he was born.
The appellate court was satisfied with those promises and ordered Baraitser to go on with the extradition proceedings. Assange is expected to appeal both this ruling and Baraitser's previous findings against him. The appellate panel was made up of Lord Chief Justice Ian Burnett and Lord Justice Timothy Holroyde.
“The reality is that this court is being invited to reject the USA’s assurances either on the basis that they are not offered in good faith or that they are for some other reason not capable of being accepted at face value,” the ruling states. “That is a serious allegation, particularly bearing in mind that the United Kingdom and the USA have a long history of cooperation in extradition matters, and the USA has in the past frequently provided, and invariably fulfilled, assurances.”
The judges added that “there is no reason why this court should not accept the assurances as meaning what they say. There is no basis for assuming that the USA has not given the assurances in good faith.”
Pending appeals, Assange has been locked up in a high-security prison in London.
At appellate hearings in October, his defense team tried to discredit the U.S. assurances about treating him humanely. They relied on a recent Yahoo News report that cited numerous CIA agents who said the intelligence service discussed plans to kill or kidnap Assange from the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, where he had taken refuge in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden on sexual assault charges that were later dropped. At the time, Assange was also fearful of being handed over to U.S. authorities, who had begun a criminal investigation into his activities.
The revelations were the latest to shed light on the CIA's efforts to target Assange, who oversaw the publication of massive troves of leaked classified documents, the most sensational of which related to alleged war crimes by the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan and deeply damaging revelations about U.S. international conduct in diplomatic cables.
The Yahoo News report added to revelations that the CIA allegedly paid a Spanish company providing security at the Ecuador Embassy to spy on Assange, according to Spanish investigators and news reports.
Assange's mental health deteriorated significantly during his confinement at the Ecuadorean Embassy and its aftermath, when he was arrested by London police and placed in the high-security Belmarsh Prison, according to doctors and his supporters.
The U.S. accuses Assange of acting like a dangerous foreign spy seeking to damage the country. WikiLeaks has come under fire for releasing information that has potentially put U.S. military personnel at danger. Assange also faces accusations that he has ties to Russia.
The Trump administration was particularly eager to go after Assange and it filed charges against him. He faces 18 counts of soliciting, gathering and publishing classified documents as well as computer hacking related to the release of hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables and military reports by Chelsea Manning. If convicted, he could face up to 175 years in jail.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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