WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s possible final legal challenge to block his extradition from Britain to the U.S. to face charges for publishing classified U.S. military documents will be held in February 2024 at the High Court in London.
The upcoming hearing, scheduled for Feb. 20 and 21, will be held before two judges who will review an earlier High Court decision made by a single judge in June, when the Australian journalist was denied permission to appeal, according to a release from pro-Assange campaigners.
Assange, 52, is facing 17 charges for allegedly receiving, possessing and communicating classified information to the public under the Espionage Act, and one charge alleging a conspiracy to commit computer intrusion.
If he is extradited to the U.S. after exhausting all his legal appeals, Assange would face trial in Alexandria, Virginia, and could be sentenced to up to 175 years in an American maximum-security prison.
The charges were brought by the Trump administration over WikiLeaks’ 2010 publication of cables leaked by U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning detailing war crimes committed by the U.S. government in the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, detention camp, Iraq and Afghanistan. The materials also exposed instances of the CIA engaging in torture and rendition.
WikiLeaks’ “Collateral Murder” video showing the U.S. military gunning down civilians in Iraq, including two Reuters journalists, was also published 13 years ago.
“This hearing signals a crucial stage in Julian’s battle for justice and is the end of the line in the U.K. courts,” Assange’s brother, Gabriel Shipton, said in the release. “This Christmas will be Julian’s 5th in a UK prison. He has gone through years of uncertainty, his mental and physical health getting worse and worse. He should be able to come home to Australia with his children and get the support he needs. I urge the Prime Minister to pull out all the stops in his efforts to end Julian’s suffering. Bring Julian home.”
The announcement of a hearing date comes after multiple bipartisan efforts were made this year by lawmakers in the U.S. and Assange’s home country of Australia demanding that U.S. officials drop the charges and end their extradition requests.
No publisher had been charged under the Espionage Act until Assange, and many press freedom groups have said his prosecution sets a dangerous precedent intended to criminalize journalism. U.S. prosecutors and critics of Assange have argued WikiLeaks’ publication of classified material put the lives of U.S. allies at risk, but there is no evidence that publishing the documents put anyone in danger.
The editors and publishers of the U.S. and European outlets that worked with Assange on the publication of excerpts from more than 250,000 documents he obtained in the Cablegate leak — The Guardian, The New York Times, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and El País — wrote an open letter last year calling for the U.S. to drop the charges against Assange.
Assange has been held at London’s high-security Belmarsh Prison since he was removed from the Ecuadorian Embassy on April 11, 2019, for breaching bail conditions. He had sought asylum at the embassy since 2012 to avoid being sent to Sweden over allegations he raped two women because Sweden would not provide assurances it would protect him from extradition to the U.S. The investigations into the sexual assault allegations were eventually dropped.
“The last four and a half years have taken the most considerable toll on Julian and his family, including our two young sons,” Assange’s wife, Stella, said in the release. The couple married while Assange was in prison.
“His mental health and physical state have deteriorated significantly,” she continued. “With the myriad of evidence that has come to light since the original hearing in 2019, such as the violation of legal privilege and reports that senior U.S. officials were involved in formulating assassination plots against my husband, there is no denying that a fair trial, let alone Julian’s safety on U.S. soil, is an impossibility were he to be extradited. The persecution of this innocent journalist and publisher must end.”
Assange’s lawyers have also applied to the European Court of Human Rights, which could potentially block his extradition to the U.S.
Shortly after the hearing date was announced, Assange supporters called for a mass protest at the court on the days the hearing is scheduled for.
The Obama administration decided not to indict Assange in 2013 over WikiLeaks’ publication of the classified cables in 2010 because it would have had to also indict journalists from major news outlets who published the same materials. Former President Obama also commuted Manning’s 35-year sentence for violations of the Espionage Act and other offenses to seven years in January 2017, and Manning, who had been imprisoned since 2010, was released later that year.
But Former President Trump’s Justice Department later moved to indict Assange under the Espionage Act, and the Biden administration has continued to pursue his prosecution.