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A U.K. court delays extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the U.S.

A demonstrator holds a placard, after Stella Assange, wife of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, released a statement outside the Royal Courts of Justice, in London, Tuesday.
Alberto Pezzali
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AP
A demonstrator holds a placard, after Stella Assange, wife of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, released a statement outside the Royal Courts of Justice, in London, Tuesday.

Updated March 26, 2024 at 12:06 PM ET

LONDON — Julian Assange won't be heading to the United States — at least not immediately.

In a partial victory for the WikiLeaks founder, London's High Court on Tuesday delayed his extradition to the U.S., where he faces espionage charges for one of the biggest national security leaks in American history.

Assange's lawyers had asked the court to grant him one last appeal against his extradition.

The two-judge panel delayed a ruling on that. Instead, it gave the U.S. government three weeks to send assurances that Assange would get a fair trial and that he would not receive the death penalty if convicted. Otherwise, the judges wrote, an appeal may proceed.

"If those assurances are not given, then leave to appeal will be given and there will then be an appeal hearing," according to a summary of the judgment published on the U.K. judiciary's website.

The judges said they would hold another hearing May 20 to evaluate any such assurances from U.S. officials.

The U.S. Justice Department declined to comment Tuesday.

Tuesday's judgment means Assange remains in legal limbo, in a high-security prison on the edge of London. He's been there for five years, after spending seven years in the Ecuadorian Embassy.

Who is Julian Assange, and what is WikiLeaks?

Assange, 52, is originally from Australia. In his teens, he became a skilled computer programmer, and later, a hacker — who was arrested for that in the mid-1990s. He went on, in 2006, to found WikiLeaks — a web-based platform where whistleblowers worldwide can publish leaked files or documents. The organization has collaborated with traditional media outlets around the world to vet and publish material.

WikiLeaks calls itself a multimedia organization and library that publishes censored or otherwise restricted official materials involving war, spying and corruption.

But it has had its share of controversies. U.S. government officials say the platform endangered lives when it published classified documents about the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. During the 2016 U.S. presidential election, there were reports that U.S. officials had evidence that Russia was supplying WikiLeaks with hacked emails from Hillary Clinton's campaign.

Why is Assange charged with espionage?

This case dates back to WikiLeaks' publication in 2010 of hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. government documents related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The trove included a now-infamous, then-classifiedvideo of a 2007 U.S. helicopter attack in Baghdad, which killed about a dozen people — including two Reuters journalists.

For many Americans, that video opened their eyes to the nature of the Iraq war. It was part of the biggest U.S. security breach of its kind.

The U.S. Army intelligence analyst who leaked those files, Chelsea Manning, served seven years in prison and was released by then-President Barack Obama.

But Assange was not pardoned. Instead, a U.S. grand jury indicted him in 2019 on 17 espionage charges and one count of computer misuse. His lawyers say he faces up to 175 years behind bars if convicted.

Julian Assange gestures to the media from a police vehicle on his arrival at Westminster Magistrates' Court on April 11, 2019, in London.
Jack Taylor / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Julian Assange gestures to the media from a police vehicle on his arrival at Westminster Magistrates' Court on April 11, 2019, in London.

There was an alleged sexual assault case against him, too

That's what he was arrested for in the first place. In 2010, Assange was arrested in London at the behest of Sweden, where two women had accused him of rape and sexual assault.

He denies any wrongdoing. Assange said at the time that he saw the case as a ruse to get him into police custody — and then extradite him to the U.S. So he jumped bail in that case, and took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he stayed for seven years.

After Ecuadorian authorities evicted him from their embassy in 2019, he was arrested by British police for breaching the terms of his bail.

The Swedish charges have since been dropped. But he still faces charges in the United States.

What Assange's lawyers say

Assange's lawyers argued that their client's life is in danger if he's extradited to the U.S.

In an interview last month, Assange's wife Stella Assange told NPR she fears for his physical and mental health, if Assange is put in solitary confinement in a U.S. prison.

"Julian's life is at stake," she said. "He will be driven to commit suicide if he's placed in isolation."

On Tuesday, Stella Assange also spoke to reporters outside London's High Court. She said she was disappointed with the judges' ruling.

Stella Assange, human rights activist and wife of Julian Assange, leaves the High Court during Julian's trial, on Feb. 21, in London.
Carl Court / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Stella Assange, human rights activist and wife of Julian Assange, leaves the High Court during Julian's trial, on Feb. 21, in London.

"I find this astounding," she said. "Julian is a political prisoner. He is a journalist, and he is being persecuted because he exposed the true cost of war, in human lives." She was apparently referring to WikiLeaks' publication of the Iraq and Afghanistan war files.

Defense lawyers say the case against Assange is politically motivated. They say it's impossible for the U.S. government which he shamed and embarrassed with those war leaks to give him a fair trial.

And moreover, they call his prosecution an assault on the free press.

While Assange started out as a hacker, he now considers himself a publisher and calls WikiLeaks amedia organization.

Press freedom groups say that if Assange is found guilty under the U.S. Espionage Act, it would set a dangerous precedent for journalists to be criminally charged for publishing leaked documents — even if it's in the public interest.

"It sends a signal that a powerful government can go after a journalist in any part of the world and extradite them there and try them under a law that was never meant to be used for journalistic practices," Reporters Without Borders' director of international campaigns, Rebecca Vincent, told NPR.

"Julian Assange is not American. He's an Australian citizen who was working in London. The fact that the U.S. government can go after somebody in this way and that another country such as the U.K. would enable it, is very concerning," she added.

Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, said Tuesday's ruling shows the U.S. government should drop the Espionage Act charges against Assange.

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

What U.S. authorities and U.K. judges say

The United States does not consider Assange a journalist. U.S. prosecutors say he endangered the lives of Iraqis, Afghans and others on the ground when he published that trove of U.S. military documents in 2010.

U.S. officials have nevertheless promised that Assange would get a fair trial, and that he won't be subject to torture. The High Court has now given them three weeks to provide further assurances.

Specifically, the London judges have asked U.S. authorities to guarantee that Assange will be protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects free speech; that he is not being discriminated against "by reason of his nationality" (Australian), and that the death penalty would not be imposed if he's found guilty of espionage.

Ryan Lucas contributed reporting from Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.
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