WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange may soon be extradited to the US if UK courts favour the move. On Thursday, British Home Secretary Sajid Javid said he has signed an order following a request from the US government to extradite Assange to face espionage and hacking charges.
Talking to BBC Radio, Javid said that it was for the courts to decide whether Assange should face espionage charges in the US. Assange is scheduled to face a hearing regarding the extradition on Friday, however, a decision is likely months away.
Assange, who lived inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London since 2012 after being granted asylum while on the run from extradition to Sweden over accusations of sexual assault, was arrested by British police in April after Ecuadorian officials revoked his asylum.
Two months ago, more than 70 British parliamentarians — mainly Labour MPs and peers — had written to Javid asking him to “stand with the victims of sexual violence”, and ensure that the charges in Sweden are “properly investigated”. However, plans for an extradition request from Sweden suffered a setback when a Swedish district court ruled against Assange’s detention.
Currently, the WikiLeaks co-founder is serving a 50-week sentence in London’s Belmarsh Prison for jumping bail in the UK in 2012.
Supporters have continuously hailed Assange as a free-speech icon and was being tied down constantly for exposing the misdeeds which have embarassed the superpower. This faction fears that Assange, if sent to US, would face trial and be punished for his ‘heroism’.
Why the US wants Assange
Assange is accused of conspiring with former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning — then known as Bradley Manning — to access classified information on computers of the US Department of Defense in 2010.
In 2013, a court-martial convicted Manning of supplying 700,000 documents, videos, diplomatic cables and battlefield accounts to WikiLeaks when she was an intelligence analyst in Iraq.
President Barack Obama commuted Manning’s 35-year sentence in 2017, but she was jailed again this March for refusing to testify before a grand jury. Information published by WikiLeaks appeared to establish the killing of hundreds of civilians by the US in unreported incidents. If tried and convicted, Assange faces up to five years in jail.
US prosecutors had initially charged Assange with a single count of computer intrusion, but last month added 17 new counts, including controversial charges under the Espionage Act for encouraging, receiving and publishing national defence information in concert with Manning.
The Case in Sweden
Two Swedish women accused Assange of sexual assault and rape, in 2010 and an investigation into this matter had led to the issue of a European arrest order. Since he feared that Sweden might extradite him to the US, he took refuge in Ecuador’s embassy in the UK which was extended to him by the then President Rafael Correa. The Swedish authorities closed the investigation in 2015 citing that they were time-barred, whereas, in 2017, they dropped the rape probe without filing charges, losing hope on getting Assange anytime soon.
However, on April 11 this year, when Assange was arrested, Swedish prosecutors said the alleged victim’s lawyer had demanded for the investigation to be reopened. The statute of limitation for rape is 10 years, which means Assange can be prosecuted until August 2020.
Assange, however, had said that he had consensual sex with both the women and that allegations were purely motivated.
What lies ahead for Assange?
Although Javid has officially signed the extradition order, it is only the first step in what could prove to be a lengthy legal battle over whether Assange should face prosecution in the US. His lawyers are likely to challenge the verdict if it goes against him.
“It is a decision ultimately for the courts, but there is a very important part of it for the home secretary and I want to see justice done at all times and we’ve got a legitimate extradition request, so I’ve signed it, but the final decision is now with the courts,” Javid said.