LONDON — The British government on Friday ordered the extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the United States to face espionage charges, a milestone — but not the end — of a decade-long legal saga unleashed by posting classified US documents on its website.
WikiLeaks said it would challenge the order and Assange’s lawyers have 14 days to appeal.
“We are not at the end of the road here,” said Assange’s wife, Stella Assange. “We will fight against this.”
Julian Assange fought for years in British courts to avoid being sent to the United States, where he faces 17 espionage charges and one charge of computer misuse.
US prosecutors claim the Australian citizen helped US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning steal diplomatic cables and classified military files which WikiLeaks later released, putting lives at risk.
To his supporters, Assange, 50, is a secrecy-busting journalist who has exposed wrongdoing by the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A British court ruled in April that Assange could be sent to trial in the United States, sending the case back to the British government for decision. Britain’s Home Secretary, Home Secretary Priti Patel, signed an order Friday authorizing Assange’s extradition.
The Home Office said in a statement that the government had to approve his move to the United States because “the UK courts have not found that it would be oppressive, unfair or an abuse of process to extradite Mr. Assange”.
Legal experts say the case could take months or even years longer to close.
Assange’s lawyers have said they will mount a new legal challenge. “We will appeal all the way, if necessary to the European Court of Human Rights,” said lawyer Jennifer Robinson.
Robinson has called on US President Joe Biden to drop charges against Assange during Donald Trump’s presidency, arguing they pose a “serious threat” to free speech.
Assange’s supporters and lawyers argue that he was acting as a journalist and is entitled to First Amendment free speech protections. They argue the case is politically motivated, that he would face inhumane treatment and could not get a fair trial in the United States.
Silkie Carlo, director of civil liberties group Big Brother Watch, said ‘the British government’s complicity in the political persecution of a journalist simply for revealing uncomfortable truths to the public is appalling, wrong and brings shame on our country’ .
Stella Assange, a lawyer who married her husband in a prison ceremony in March, said the UK decision marked “a dark day for press freedom and for British democracy”.
“Julian did nothing wrong,” she said. “He has committed no crime and is not a criminal. He is a journalist and publisher, and he is being punished for doing his job.
Friday’s ruling came after a legal battle that went all the way to the UK Supreme Court.
A British District Court judge initially rejected the extradition request on the grounds that Assange was likely to commit suicide if held in harsh prison conditions in the United States. US authorities later assured that the WikiLeaks founder would not undergo the harsh treatment which his lawyers say would put his physical and mental health at risk.
These assurances led the UK High Court and Supreme Court to overturn the lower court’s decision.
Journalism organizations and human rights groups had called on Britain to refuse the extradition request. Assange’s lawyers say he could face up to 175 years in prison if convicted in the United States, although US authorities have said any sentence is likely to be much less than that.
Amnesty International’s secretary general, Agnès Callamard, said Friday that Assange’s extradition “would put him in danger and send a chilling message to journalists around the world”.
“If the extradition proceeds, Amnesty International is extremely concerned that Assange faces a high risk of prolonged solitary confinement, which would violate the prohibition against torture or other ill-treatment.” she declared.
Assange remains in London’s high-security Belmarsh prison, where he has been since his 2019 arrest for skipping bail in a separate legal battle. Prior to that, he spent seven years inside Ecuador’s embassy in London to avoid being extradited to Sweden to face allegations of rape and sexual assault.
Sweden dropped sex crimes investigations in November 2019 because so much time had passed, but British judges kept Assange in jail pending the outcome of the extradition case.