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WikiLeaks founder Assange starts final legal battle to avoid extradition to U.S.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is shown making a statement to the media gathered outside the High Court in London, Dec. 5, 2011.
Kirsty Wigglesworth
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is shown making a statement to the media gathered outside the High Court in London, Dec. 5, 2011.

LONDON — Julian Assange's lawyers will begin their final U.K. legal challenge on Tuesday to stop the WikiLeaks founder from being sent to the United States to face spying charges.

The 52-year-old has been fighting extradition for more than a decade, including seven years in self-exile in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and the last five years in a high-security prison.

Assange's attorneys will ask two High Court judges to grant a new appeal hearing, his last legal roll of the dice in Britain. If the judges rule against Assange, he can ask the European Court of Human Rights to block his extradition – though supporters worry he could be put on a plane to the U.S. before that happens.

Judges Victoria Sharp and Jeremy Johnson could deliver a verdict at the end of the two-day hearing on Wednesday, but they're more likely to take several weeks to consider their decision.

"This hearing marks the beginning of the end of the extradition case, as any grounds rejected by these judges cannot be further appealed in the U.K. – bringing Assange dangerously close to extradition," the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders said.

Assange supporters plan to demonstrate outside the neo-Gothic court building on both days and march to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's Downing Street office at the end of the hearing.

Assange, an Australian citizen, has been indicted on 17 charges of espionage and one charge of computer misuse over his website's publication of classified U.S. documents. U.S. prosecutors say he helped U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning steal diplomatic cables and military files that WikiLeaks later published, putting lives at risk.

To his supporters, Assange is a secrecy-busting journalist who exposed U.S. military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan and is entitled to First Amendment protections. They argue that the prosecution is politically motivated and he won't get a fair trial in the U.S.

His wife Stella Assange — a lawyer whom he married in prison in 2022 — says his health has deteriorated during years of confinement.

"His health is in decline, mentally and physically. His life is at risk every single day he stays in prison, and if he's extradited, he will die," she told reporters last week.

Assange's legal troubles began in 2010, when he was arrested in London at the request of Sweden, which wanted to question him about allegations of rape and sexual assault made by two women. In 2012, Assange jumped bail and sought refuge inside the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he was beyond the reach of U.K. and Swedish authorities — but was also effectively a prisoner in the tiny diplomatic mission.

The relationship between Assange and his hosts eventually soured, and he was evicted from the embassy in April 2019. British police immediately arrested him for breaching bail in 2012. He has been held in London's Belmarsh Prison throughout his extradition battle. Sweden dropped the sex crimes investigations in November 2019 because so much time had elapsed.

Assange's lawyers say he could face up to 175 years in prison if convicted, though American authorities have said the sentence is likely to be much shorter than that.

A U.K. district court judge rejected the U.S. extradition request in 2021 on the grounds that Assange was likely to kill himself if held under harsh U.S. prison conditions. Higher courts overturned that decision after getting assurances from the U.S. about his treatment. The British government signed an extradition order in June 2022.

Meanwhile, the Australian parliament last week called for Assange to be allowed to return to his homeland.

"Regardless of where people stand, this thing cannot just go on and on and on indefinitely," Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said.

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The Associated Press
[Copyright 2024 NPR]