Julian Assange's wife says ruling 'beginning of the end' of US extradition battle

Stella Assange tells The National she was preparing for the worst but now has hope her husband can win case

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The wife of Julian Assange has said the decision by a UK court to grant an appeal could mark the "beginning of the end" in his long-running battle to avoid extradition to the US.

Stella Assange was speaking to The National after judges gave Mr Assange a fresh chance to challenge attempts by the US to bring him to court to face charges in connection with WikiLeaks' publication of hundreds of thousands of files relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He has been indicted on 17 espionage charges and one charge of computer misuse over his website’s publication of a trove of classified US documents almost 15 years ago.

In March, judges delayed a final decision on whether the 52 year old could appeal against his extradition, pending "satisfactory" assurances from the US that he would not face the death penalty, can use in his defence the First Amendment US constitution, which protects free speech, and that his trial and sentencing would not be prejudiced by his Australian nationality.

At a hearing on Monday, the two judges granted permission to appeal after Mr Assange argued at London's High Court that he might not be able to rely on the First Amendment in a US court.

Speaking later, Mrs Assange that while decision is a “temporary reprieve‘’, it "does show that the British courts are disturbed by some aspects of the case”.

“I think today could mark the beginning of the end of this case," she said.

“Obviously, we were preparing for the worst but every day that there is some decisive hearing in which Julian could be extradited and he's not, is a win. It brings Julian closer to his freedom."

Mrs Assange said that "clearly, the United States should just abandon this case" and it is "to anyone who looks at it objectively a political persecution through the courts".

"After today's decision, it should be clear to the Biden administration that the best thing they could do now is to just drop it," she said.

She revealed that guards at the high-security Belmarsh Prison, where Mr Assange is being held, congratulated him when the decision was announced.

"I was speaking to Julian, he had called me, and we were talking about the decision and so on and then the door was unlocked by a guard.

"They called him for exercise and then I could also hear them say 'congratulations'. Generally, a lot of guards and other prisoners know that Julian is a political prisoner and that he shouldn't be there."

Mr Assange was not in court for the hearing but Mrs Assange with whom he has two children aged five and seven, was present to hear the decision.

During the hearing, his lawyer Edward Fitzgerald KC asked that the judges should not accept the assurance given by US prosecutors that he could seek to rely upon the rights and protections given under the First Amendment, as a US court would not be bound by this.

"We say this is a blatantly inadequate assurance," he told the court.

Mr Fitzgerald accepted a separate assurance that Mr Assange would not face the death penalty, saying the US had provided an "unambiguous promise not to charge any capital offence".

Lawyers on behalf of the US had said Mr Assange's bid to bring an appeal should be refused given the promises, which were made in a note from the US embassy.

James Lewis KC said there was "no question" that Mr Assange "will be entitled to the full panoply of due process trial rights, including the right to raise, and seek to rely upon, the First Amendment as a defence".

The final decision on whether he would be able to rely on the First Amendment would be down to a judge, he said.

"The assurance does make it clear that he will not be discriminated against because of his nationality," he told the court.

"He can and will be able to raise all those arguments and his nationality will not prejudice a fair trial."

The court said that if Assange could not rely on the First Amendment then it was arguable his extradition would be incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, which also provides free speech and media protection.

But the US government says Mr Assange’s actions went way beyond those of a journalist gathering information, amounting to an attempt to solicit, steal and indiscriminately publish classified government documents.

Mr Lewis said that despite giving Mr Assange assurances he could seek to use the First Amendment, his conduct was “simply unprotected”.

“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,” he told the court.

Mrs Assange said earlier outside the court that lawyers for the US had tried to put “lipstick on a pig – but the judges did not buy it". She said they should “read the situation” and drop the case.

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

The decision is the latest twist in his 12-year legal battle to avoid extradition from the UK. A large crowd gathered outside the High Court ahead of the decision.

The WikiLeaks founder fled to the Ecuador embassy in London in 2012 while he was facing extradition to Sweden, where he was being investigated after a rape allegation was made against him two years earlier.

He has been battling extradition to the US since 2019 and is currently being held in the maximum-security Belmarsh Prison in London.

US prosecutors allege that Mr Assange encouraged and helped US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to steal diplomatic cables and military files that WikiLeaks published.

Mr Assange's lawyers say he could face up to 175 years in prison if convicted, though US authorities have said any sentence would probably be much shorter.

Updated: May 21, 2024, 7:19 AM