LONDON: UK Home Secretary Priti Patel approved the US government's request to extradite the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the United States to face charges over the alleged leak of classified documents related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It follows a British court ruling that he could be sent to the US.
The Home Office on June 17 said the interior minister "must sign an extradition order if there are no grounds to prohibit the (extradition) order being made" (under the Extradition Act 2003), and the courts had found none.
Wikileaks has responded with a statement posted on Twitter, saying that Mr Assange would appeal his extradition.
The decision is a big moment in Assange’s years-long battle to avoid being sent to the US — though not necessarily the end of the tale. However, a counter appeal by Assange's legal team is expected to restart another round of legal battle.
No grounds found to prohibit extradition order
"On 17 June, following consideration by both the magistrate's court and High Court, the extradition of Mr Julian Assange to the US was ordered. Mr Assange retains the normal 14-day right to appeal," a UK Home Office spokesperson said. Extradition requests are only sent to the home secretary once a judge decides it can proceed after considering various aspects of the case, the spokesperson said.
"In this case, the UK courts have not found that it would be oppressive, unjust, or an abuse of process to extradite Mr Assange. Nor have they found that extradition would be incompatible with his human rights, including his right to a fair trial and to freedom of expression, and that whilst in the US he will be treated appropriately, including in relation to his health," the spokesperson's statement said.
Supreme Court in March had refused Assange permission to appeal against a lower court's ruling that he could be extradited to face trial in the US over the publication of secret files relating to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. On April 20, a judge at Westminster Magistrates' Court had formally issued the order in a brief hearing, as Assange watched by video link from Belmarsh Prison.
The US has asked British authorities to extradite Assange so he can stand trial on 17 charges of espionage and one charge of computer misuse.
Assange sought for years to avoid a trial in the US where he is wanted on charges of violating the US Espionage Act by publishing a huge trove of classified military and diplomatic files in 2010.
His wife, Stella Moris, has pleaded for his release from custody after they had two children in secret while the 50-year-old campaigner was holed up for years in Ecuador's London embassy. Assange had married his lawyer fiancée Moris in jail in March.
Cause for concern for press freedom
WikiLeaks called Patel's decision a "dark day for press freedom and for British democracy" and vowed to pursue the appeal to the High Court, accusing the United States of having "plotted his assassination".
"Julian did nothing wrong. He has committed no crime and is not a criminal. He is a journalist and a publisher, and he is being punished for doing his job," the group said in a statement.
WikiLeaks said the case was "political", as Assange published evidence that the United States "committed war crimes and covered them up". The extradition was an attempt to "try to disappear him into the darkest recesses of their prison system for the rest of his life to deter others from holding governments to account", it said.
BREAKING: UK Home Secretary approves extradition of WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange to the US where he would face a 175 year sentence - A dark day for Press freedom and for British democracy— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) June 17, 2022
The decision will be appealedhttps://t.co/m1bX8STSr8 pic.twitter.com/5nWlxnWqO7
The 50-year-old's case has become a cause celebre for media freedom, with his supporters accusing Washington of trying to muzzle reporting of legitimate security concerns. He could face up to 175 years in jail if found guilty, although the exact sentence is difficult to estimate.
Assange has been held on remand at a top-security jail in southeast London since 2019 for jumping bail in a previous case accusing him of sexual assault in Sweden.
That case was dropped but he was not released from prison after serving time for breaching bail on the grounds he was a flight risk in the US extradition case.
NEW: Following consideration by both the Magistrates Court and High Court, the extradition of Julian Assange has been ordered.— Home Office (@ukhomeoffice) June 17, 2022
Assange spent seven years at Ecuador's embassy in London to avoid being removed to Sweden. He was arrested when the government changed in Quito and his diplomatic protection was removed.
(With inputs from AP, AFP, PTI)