The UK home secretary has given the go-ahead for Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, to be extradited to the US to stand trial on charges of acting illegally in obtaining and publishing classified documents.
Priti Patel signed the extradition order on Friday after the High Court ruled last year that Assange, who has been held in a London prison since 2019, could be extradited. Assange has 14 days to appeal.
The US wants Assange to face trial on one charge of computer hacking and 17 charges of violating the 1917 Espionage Act, relating to one of the biggest leaks of classified material in history. If found guilty, Assange faces up to 175 years in jail.
The US charges stem from WikiLeaks’ publication in 2010 of a huge cache of secret documents passed to him by Chelsea Manning, a former US military intelligence analyst. The trove included 90,000 reports relating to the war in Afghanistan, 400,000 relating to the Iraq war and 250,000 US diplomatic cables.
Stella Assange, his wife, called it a “dark day for press freedom and for British democracy”. “Today is not the end of the fight. It is only the beginning of a new legal battle,” she said. “We will appeal through the legal system; the next appeal will be before the High Court.”
Patel was expected to approve the extradition because under the Extradition Act 2003, the home secretary only has limited grounds to refuse removal, such as where someone is at risk of the death penalty.
The Home Office said on Friday that Patel made her decision after consideration by the magistrates court and High Court. “In this case, the UK courts have not found that it would be oppressive, unjust or an abuse of process to extradite Mr Assange.” it said.
Nick Vamos, head of business crime at law firm Peters & Peters, said: “This decision was inevitable given the very narrow grounds on which the home secretary can refuse extradition, but it is unlikely to be the end of the road. Assange can now appeal on all the grounds on which he originally lost such as political motivation, freedom of speech and whether he would receive a fair trial in the US.”
During the High Court case the US authorities gave assurances that Assange would not be held in a particular maximum security prison in Colorado and said that if he is convicted he could be transferred to his home country of Australia to serve his sentence.
Assange’s legal team have contended that the WikiLeaks founder’s prosecution under the US Espionage Act sets a dangerous precedent for press freedom and criminalises investigative journalism. They argued that he was working as a journalist when he obtained and published the leaked material and should be covered by freedom of speech protections.
Assange has been held at London’s Belmarsh jail since April 2019 when he was sentenced for skipping bail conditions. He had previously spent seven years in the Ecuadorean embassy after breaking bail in 2012 when he was due to be extradited to Sweden on unrelated sexual assault charges, which were subsequently dropped. He was arrested and forcibly removed from the Ecuadorean embassy by British police in 2019.