UN expert hails UK court decision allowing Julian Assange’s appeal against his extradition
UN expert hails UK court decision allowing Julian Assange’s appeal against his extradition
  • Yoo Jin, Reporter
  • 승인 2024.05.31 09:04
  • 수정 2024.06.01 06:05
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Free Assange Campaign /AP Yonhap
Free Assange Campaign /AP Yonhap

A UN expert on Wednesday hailed the decision of the High Court of Justice in London to allow the appeal of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange against his extradition to the US, calling it a "welcome relief."

However, Alice Jill Edwards, the UN special rapporteur on torture, warned in a statement that "the case is not over yet."

"I welcome the High Court’s decision to allow the case to proceed to a full appeal. This is a terribly complex case, but at the heart of it are issues around human rights and values we hold as a society and the protections afforded to those who disclose potential war crimes," Edwards said.

In a recent development, the court ruled that the US assurances were not sufficiently convincing, paving the way for a reexamination of Assange's appeal. Consequently, he will not be legally extraditable to the US to stand trial on 18 charges related to the Espionage Act of 1917 due to the alleged dissemination of classified information via WikiLeaks.

"The impact of this long-running legal saga has taken a heavy toll on Mr. Assange’s health. I hope that relevant governments, including Mr. Assange’s own country Australia, can come to an agreement, rather than proceed further with lengthy legal battles," she said.

Supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in London demonstrate against his possible extradition to the U.S., on February 21, 2024. / Reuters
Supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in London demonstrate against his possible extradition to the U.S., on February 21, 2024. / Reuters

Assange, who has been detained in a UK prison since 2019, faces extradition over allegations of leaking classified documents in 2010-2011.

The UK High Court, in a pivotal 2021 ruling, decreed that Assange should be extradited, dismissing assertions over his fragile mental state and the risks he might face in a US correctional facility.

Following the suit, the Supreme Court upheld the decision in 2022, while then-Home Secretary Priti Patel affirmed the extradition order.

In his latest bid for a reprieve, Assange is seeking authorization to scrutinize Patel's determination and challenge the initial 2021 court verdict.

A billboard in Melbourne, Australia, calls for the release of WikiLeaks founder, Australian Julian Assange [AFP]
A billboard in Melbourne, Australia, calls for the release of WikiLeaks founder, Australian Julian Assange [AFP]

Legal experts are voicing hope and caution after London’s High Court ruling this week allowed WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to appeal his extradition to the United States.

“The judges have assessed that the issues raised by the Assange legal team had sufficient legal merit that they were suitable for determination by the Court of Appeal,” Donald Rothwell, an international law professor at Australian National University, told Al Jazeera.

“They have not made a finding either way as to their merits, only that there were suitable questions for further determination.”

Assange’s team has argued that he could face a prejudicial trial process or the death penalty if extradited.

Monday’s decision did not guarantee protection from extradition, and did not mean the court accepted these arguments, Rothwell said. But there was a victory in the reversal of a March 26 ruling, which might have allowed the extradition.

“The only ‘win’ here for Assange is that he was granted leave to appeal,” said Rothwell.

John Shipton, the father of Julian Assange. /Guardian
John Shipton, the father of Julian Assange. /Guardian

The High Court had sought written assurances from the Virginia court where Assange would stand trial that the Australian national would be accorded the same rights as a US citizen under the First Amendment, which protects free speech and freedom of the press.

“If assurances are given, then we will give the parties an opportunity to make further submissions before we make a final decision on the application for leave to appeal,” said Justice Jeremy Johnson in his official decision (PDF) at the time.

Justice Johnson was one of the two judges in Monday’s decision to allow the appeal, along with Justice Victoria Sharp.

“[The decision] resets the game,” said Andreas Takis, a human rights lawyer and president of the Hellenic League for Human Rights, a nongovernmental body.

“This may be a slender victory but it opens possibilities that are critical – because Assange gives the impression of being an apostle for human rights rather than a malicious actor against the interests of the United States,” (Takis)

Free Assange! Protesters made human chain around British Parliament. 8 Oct. 2022. /Reuters= Yonhap<br>
Free Assange! Protesters made human chain around British Parliament. 8 Oct. 2022. /Reuters= Yonhap<br>

“The fact that the US wasn’t prepared to offer written assurances made the British judges sceptical about [Assange’s] fate.”

Assange’s wife, Stella, welcomed the news.

“As a family we are relieved but how long can this go on?” she said. “This case is shameful and it is taking an enormous toll on Julian.”

She and Assange’s friends have argued that fighting extradition, first from the Ecuadorean embassy in London for seven years, then from the Belmarsh maximum-security prison for another five, has been punishment enough.

“There will be a new appeal, and then another appeal, and another appeal, but he remains in prison and he might be entombed in prison for life just for revealing war crimes, torture, extrajudicial killings,” Stefania Maurizi, an investigative journalist, told.

Maurizi has worked on all WikiLeaks secret documents, partnering with Assange and WikiLeaks since 2009.

“Media partners like me, who published the very same revelations, have never been put in prison or even questioned by the US or UK authorities. How do the US and UK authorities explain this double standard?” she said.

Julian Assange has now been in the maximum-security facilities of Belmarsh Prison for over 1,000 days. [Source= Independent Australia]
Julian Assange has now been in the maximum-security facilities of Belmarsh Prison for over 1,000 days. [Source= Independent Australia]

British courts have gone back and forth over whether Assange should be extradited to the US.

A British judge in January 2021 ruled Assange should not be extradited because he was likely to end his own life in near-total isolation.

But Assange was ordered extradited the following year to face 17 espionage charges, which could carry sentences of 175 years in jail.

The charges stem from Assange’s publication in 2010 of hundreds of thousands of pages of classified US military documents on WikiLeaks.

The files were widely reported in Western media and revealed evidence of what many consider to be war crimes committed by US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

They include video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack in Baghdad that killed 11 people, including two journalists with the Reuters news agency.

‘It will become lethally dangerous to handle, let alone publish, documents from US government sources.’ Protesters in Rome urge the UK not to extradite Julian Assange. [Guardian]
‘It will become lethally dangerous to handle, let alone publish, documents from US government sources.’ Protesters in Rome urge the UK not to extradite Julian Assange. [Guardian]

Assange’s lawyers have argued that he acted as a publisher of leaked intelligence documents, and should enjoy the rights and freedoms accorded under the First Amendment.

The US government says he did more than that, conspiring to steal classified information and harm US interests abroad, and merits prosecution under the 1917 Espionage Act.

The US legal representative, James Lewis, has also said the First Amendment would not protect Assange.

“No one, neither US citizens nor foreign citizens, are entitled to rely on the First Amendment in relation to publication of illegally obtained national defence information giving the names of innocent sources, to their grave and imminent risk of harm,” Lewis said this week.

Many free speech experts believe the US should drop the charges – among them Jameel Jaffer, an international law professor at Columbia University.

“Prosecuting Assange for the publication of classified information would have profound implications for press freedom, because publishing classified information is what journalists and news organisations often need to do in order to expose wrongdoing by government.” (Jaffer)  

From left, John Shipton, father of Julian Assange; UMD journalism Professor Mark Feldstein; lawyer Barry Pollack; and producer Gabriel Shipton, Assange's half-brother, discuss the WikiLeaks founder's plight following a screening of a documentary about him, "Ithaka," in Knight Hall. MarylandToday
From left, John Shipton, father of Julian Assange; UMD journalism Professor Mark Feldstein; lawyer Barry Pollack; and producer Gabriel Shipton, Assange's half-brother, discuss the WikiLeaks founder's plight following a screening of a documentary about him, "Ithaka," in Knight Hall. MarylandToday

Jaffer said the charges did not establish an intent to harm the US, nor acknowledge the benefits brought to the US by the disclosure.

The oscillation of the British courts on extradition is part of a deeper political tension, said Takis, between pro-Brexit Conservatives who want Britain to declare itself independent of the European justice system, and those who see it as a guarantee of human rights.

“We’re seeing British courts hewing to a continental sense of justice, like the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, rather than the British tendency to distance itself,” said Takis.

“It appears that the US is tying justice to citizenship. The fact that the US wasn’t prepared to offer written assurances made the British judges sceptical about [Assange’s] fate. This case could now end up in Strasbourg where we could witness a robust defence in accordance with European rights.”

Free Assange Campaign. /Pressenza
Free Assange Campaign. /Pressenza

Timeline of Wikileaks founder’s legal battles

▶July 1971 - Assange is born in Townsville, Australia, to parents involved in theatre. As a teenager, he gains a reputation as a computer programmer. In 1995, he is fined for computer hacking but avoids prison on condition he does not offend again.

▶2006 - Assange founds WikiLeaks, creating an internet-based "dead letter drop" for leakers of classified or sensitive information.

▶April 5, 2010 - WikiLeaks releases leaked video from a U.S. helicopter showing an air strike that killed civilians in Baghdad, including two Reuters news staff.

▶July 25, 2010 - WikiLeaks releases more than 91,000 documents, mostly secret U.S. military reports about the Afghanistan war.

▶October, 2010 - WikiLeaks releases 400,000 classified military files chronicling the Iraq war. The next month, it releases thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables, including candid views of foreign leaders and blunt assessments of security threats.

▶Nov. 18, 2010 - A Swedish court orders Assange's arrest on sex crime allegations, which he denies. He is arrested in Britain the next month on a European arrest warrant but freed on bail.

▶February 2011 - London's Westminster Magistrates' Court orders Assange's extradition to Sweden. He appeals.

▶June 14, 2012 - The British Supreme Court rejects Assange's final appeal. Five days later, he takes refuge in Ecuador's embassy in London and seeks political asylum, which Ecuador grants in August 2012.

▶May 19, 2017 - Swedish prosecutors discontinue their investigation, saying it is impossible to proceed while Assange is in the Ecuadorean embassy.

▶April 11, 2019 - After Ecuador revokes his political asylum, Assange is carried out of the embassy and arrested. He is sentenced on May 1 to 50 weeks in prison by a British court for skipping bail. He completes the sentence early but remains in jail pending extradition hearings.

▶May 13, 2019 - Swedish prosecutors reopen their investigation and say they will seek Assange's extradition.

▶June 11, 2019 - The U.S. Justice Department formally asks Britain to extradite Assange to the United States to face charges that he conspired to hack U.S. government computers and violated an espionage law.

▶Nov. 19, 2019 - Swedish prosecutors drop their investigation, saying the evidence is not strong enough to bring charges, in part because of the passage of time.

▶Feb. 21, 2020 - A London court begins the first part of extradition hearings.

▶Jan. 4, 2021 - A British judge rules that Assange should not be extradited to the U.S. to face criminal charges, saying his mental health problems mean he would be at risk of suicide.

▶Dec. 10, 2021 - The U.S. wins an appeal against the ruling after a judge says he is satisfied with a U.S. package of assurances about the conditions of Assange's detention.

▶March 14, 2022 - Britain's Supreme Court denies Assange permission to appeal against the decision to extradite him to the United States.

▶March 23, 2022 - Assange marries his long-term partner Stella Moris, the mother of his two children fathered inside the Ecuadorean embassy, inside a British high-security prison.

▶June 17, 2022 - Britain orders Assange's extradition to the United States, prompting Assange to appeal.

▶June, 2023 - Judge at London's High Court rules Assange has no legal grounds to appeal.

▶Feb. 20, 2024 - Assange launches what his supporters say will be his final attempt to prevent extradition.

▶March 26, 2024 - The extradition is put on hold when the court says the U.S. must provide assurances that Assange will not face a potential death penalty.

▶May 20, 2024 - The High Court gives Assange permission to launch a full appeal against his extradition on grounds that, as a foreign national on trial, he might not be able to rely on the First Amendment right to free speech that U.S. citizens enjoy. 

Protesters march in support of Julian Assange on February 11, 2023, in London, England. / Truthout
Protesters march in support of Julian Assange on February 11, 2023, in London, England. / Truthout

 

AI Jazeera / REUTERS
 

yoojin@wikileaks-kr.org

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