British court rules Julian Assange may make full appeal against US extradition on First Amendment grounds

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange may appeal an extradition order to the U.S. on espionage charges for publishing classified U.S. military documents, the British High Court ruled Monday.

Judges Victoria Sharp and Jeremy Johnson ruled in favor of Assange after his lawyers successfully argued that the U.S. government’s assurances that he would be entitled to the same free speech protections as American citizens in a U.S. courtroom were “blatantly inadequate.”

Assange, 52, faces 17 counts under the Espionage Act for allegedly receiving, possessing and communicating classified information to the public, as well as one charge alleging conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. If extradited from London, Assange would stand trial in Alexandria, Virginia, and could face up to 175 years in an American maximum security prison if convicted.

The charges were brought by the Trump administration’s Justice Department over WikiLeaks’ 2010 publication of cables leaked by U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, and the Biden administration has since continued to pursue Assange’s prosecution. The information detailed alleged war crimes committed by the U.S. government in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, detention camp, as well as instances of the CIA engaging in torture and rendition.

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WikiLeaks’ “Collateral Murder” video showing the U.S. military gunning down civilians in Iraq, including two Reuters journalists, was also published 14 years ago.

Assange’s family praised Monday’s ruling as a victory for freedom of speech, now allowing the Australian publisher to make a full appeal before the British court.

“Today was a huge blow to the prosecution against Julian Assange and win for free expression around the world,” Assange’s brother, Gabriel Shipton, told Fox News Digital on Monday. “Today the U.K. courts rejected the notion that U.S. secrecy laws have the ability to restrict the free expression of people in the United Kingdom. We are one step closer to Julian’s freedom and we’ll continue to fight this indictment until he is free to come home to his family.”

Speaking outside the court, Assange’s wife, Stella, said the U.S. government attempted to put “lipstick on a pig — but the judges did not buy it.” She also called on America to “read the situation” and drop the prosecution against her husband.

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

The U.S. Justice Department and U.S. State Department declined to comment to Fox News Digital about Monday’s ruling.

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The ruling comes after Biden said last month he is considering a request from Australia to drop the charges against Assange.

A U.K. district court judge had initially 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 later overturned that decision after getting assurances from the U.S. about his treatment.

He was not in court for Monday’s ruling due to health reasons, according to his lawyers.

Last month, the U.S. provided assurances sought by the British court stating that Assange would not face additional charges that could lead to the death penalty and that he would be allowed to make a First Amendment argument in a U.S. courtroom. The U.S., however, acknowledged that the applicability of the First Amendment is within the purview of the U.S. courts.

Assange’s lawyers only accepted that he would not face the prospect of capital punishment, pointing out that the assurance that Assange could “raise and seek to rely upon” the First Amendment was inadequate. His lawyers also argued that the U.S. refused to agree not to challenge Assange’s right to use the First Amendment defense.

“The real issue is whether an adequate assurance has been provided to remove the real risk identified by the court,” lawyer Edward Fitzgerald said. “It is submitted that no adequate assurance has been made.”

A lawyer representing the U.S., James Lewis, said Assange would be “entitled to the full panoply of due process trial rights” but argued that some of what he is accused of was “simply unprotected” by the First Amendment.

“No one, neither U.S. citizens nor foreign citizens, are entitled to rely on the First Amendment in relation to publication of illegally obtained national defense information giving the names of innocent sources, to their grave and imminent risk of harm,” Lewis said.

The court ruled that Assange could appeal on two grounds related to the First Amendment, but it accepted the U.S. assurances that Assange would not face the death penalty.

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The judges said if Assange was denied a First Amendment defense, his extradition could be incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, which also provides free speech and media protection. The judges further stated that Assange could be treated unfairly because of his nationality if he cannot rely on the First Amendment because he is not a U.S. citizen.

In March, when the British court asked the U.S. to provide assurances, it rejected six of Assange’s nine appeals, including allegations of a political prosecution and concerns about an alleged CIA plot under the Trump administration to kidnap or kill Assange while he was at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

The Obama administration in 2013 decided not to indict Assange over WikiLeaks’ 2010 publication of classified cables because it would have had to also indict journalists from major news outlets who published the same materials.

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.

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.

“This decision marks an important milestone in Julian Assange’s legal case, opening up a vital new path to prevent extradition,” Reporters Without Borders Director of Campaigns Rebecca Vincent said in a statement. “The two grounds for appeal that have been granted mean that, for the first time in three years, the U.K. courts will consider the issues at the very heart of this case, related to freedom of expression and the First Amendment. We urge the U.K. to act in the interest of journalism and press freedom and refuse to further enable this dangerous prosecution.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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