(CN) — The United Kingdom on Friday approved allowing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to be extradited to the United States where he faces charges of espionage and a long prison sentence.
Assange's lawyers said they would appeal the order by Home Secretary Priti Patel to Britain's High Court. His team likely will argue that his extradition is a violation of freedom of expression and politically motivated.
Patel's decision was widely condemned as an assault on journalism and anti-democratic by Assange's supporters, who include human rights activists, journalists, politicians and those who see American foreign policy as a form of brutal imperialism.
“Priti Patel's decision may not be surprising but it is to be denounced,” said Agnes Callamard, the secretary general of Amnesty International. “Extraditing Julian Assange to the U.S. would put him at great risk, including of torture through solitary confinement, and sends a chilling message to journalists the world over.”
In a statement, Patel's office said she signed the extradition order because “there are no grounds to prohibit the order being made.”
“In this case, the U.K. courts have not found that it would be oppressive, unjust or an abuse of process to extradite Mr. Assange,” the Home Office said. “Nor have they found that extradition would be incompatible with his human rights, including his right to a fair trial and to freedom of expression, and that whilst in the U.S. he will be treated appropriately, including in relation to his health.”
British courts have shot down his previous appeals and he could now be left with one last legal showdown at the High Court to avoid being shipped off to the U.S.
Assange has been fighting extradition to the U.S. ever since he was arrested in April 2019 on charges of skipping bail. He was forcibly removed by police from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London after Ecuador stopped giving him asylum.
“This is a dark day for press freedom and for British democracy,” WikiLeaks said in a statement. “Julian did nothing wrong. 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.”
At a news conference in London, Stella Assange, his wife, vowed that the legal battle was far from over.
“We are not at the end of the road here. We are going to fight this. We are going to use every available avenue,” she said, as reported by the Guardian. “I’m going to use every waking hour fighting for Julian until he is free, until justice is served.”
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.
Assange oversaw the publication of the 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.
In January, the High Court said he could be extradited on the basis of a promise made by the American government that the 50-year-old cyber activist will not endure harsh U.S. prison conditions.
A year before in January 2021, 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.
Assange’s mental health deteriorated significantly during his confinement at the Ecuadorean Embassy and its aftermath, when he was placed in the high-security Belmarsh Prison, according to doctors and his supporters. He remains in custody in Belmarsh.
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.
At appellate hearings before the High Court last October, Assange’s defense team tried to discredit the U.S. assurances about treating him humanely. They relied on a 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 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.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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