Why Wikileaks’ Julian Assange faces US extradition demand

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Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is expected to find out on Monday whether he can halt his extradition to the US, to face trial for disclosing military secrets.

In March, the UK High Court said Mr Assange could launch a new appeal if the US failed to give fresh assurances relating to a fair trial.

Who is Julian Assange and what is Wikileaks?

As a teenager, Mr Assange gained a reputation for computer programming.

In 1995, he was fined for hacking offences in his native country, Australia, but avoided prison after promising not to do it again.

Mr Assange founded the Wikileaks website in 2006. It claims to have published more than 100 million documents, including many confidential or restricted official reports related to war, spying and corruption.

In 2010, it released a video from a US military helicopter which showed civilians being killed in the Iraqi capital Baghdad.

Helicopter footage was posted on Wikileaks

It also published thousands of confidential documents supplied by former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning.

These suggested that the US military had killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents during the war in Afghanistan.

How did the US government respond to Wikileaks?

In 2019, the US Department of Justice described the leaks as “one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States”.

Lawyers for the US authorities said publishing the information had put named individuals in Afghanistan and Iraq at “risk of serious harm, torture or even death”.

Mr Assange insisted that the files exposed serious abuses by US armed forces, and that the case against him was politically motivated.

He was accused of conspiring to break into its military databases to acquire sensitive information, and was charged with 18 offences.

The US authorities began extradition proceedings to bring Mr Assange to the US.

If convicted, his lawyers say he faces up to 175 years in jail. However, the US government says four to six years is more likely.

The 2019 US extradition request was granted after a series of court hearings.

However, Mr Assange has fought to overturn the decision.

In 2021, the UK High Court dismissed claims that his poor mental health meant he might take his own life in a US jail and ruled that he could be extradited.

In 2022, the Supreme Court upheld that decision and then-Home Secretary, Priti Patel, confirmed the extradition order.

However, Mr Assange returned to the High Court in February 2024, to ask permission to appeal.

On 26 March, the High Court said it would delay its ruling until 20 May, and asked the US to provide a number of assurances:

that Mr Assange would be able to rely on the first amendment to the US constitution – which protects free speech

that his Australian nationality would not count against him

that he would not be sentenced to death if he is later convicted of additional crimes relating to the WikiLeaks

Mr Assange is not charged with any offence in the US which carries the death penalty. However, his lawyers fear he could be further charged with a treason or espionage crime in the future which does.

The court said if the assurances were not given, Mr Assange would be allowed to appeal against the extradition order.

During the extradition process Mr Assange has been kept in London’s high security Belmarsh prison over fears he could abscond.

Why did Julian Assange live in the Ecuadorian embassy?

In 2010, Swedish authorities issued an arrest warrant for Mr Assange, accusing him of having raped one woman and molested another.

He said the claims were “without basis”.

Sweden asked the UK to extradite Mr Assange, who was arrested and remanded on bail.

Two years of legal battles followed, but in 2012, the UK Supreme Court ruled that he should be extradited to Sweden for questioning.

However, he went on the run and sought political asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy, claiming the Swedish case would lead to him being sent to the US. Asylum was granted by Ecuador’s then president, Rafael Correa.

Mr Assange spent seven years in the embassy, and was regularly visited by celebrity supporters including the singer Lady Gaga and the actor Pamela Anderson.

Mr Assange has several well-known supporters, including actor Pamela Anderson

In April 2019, Ecuador’s new president Lenin Moreno ordered Mr Assange to leave the embassy because of his “discourteous and aggressive behaviour”.

He was arrested inside the embassy by British police, and then tried for not surrendering to the courts to be extradited to Sweden. He received a 50-week prison sentence.

In November 2019, the Swedish authorities dropped their case against Mr Assange because too much time had passed since the alleged offences.

Who is Julian Assange’s wife Stella Assange?

Mr Assange married his long-time partner, lawyer Stella Moris, inside Belmarsh prison in 2022.

She wore a wedding dress designed by Dame Vivienne Westwood, and has called on US President Joe Biden to “drop this shameful case”.

The couple began their relationship in 2015, and have two children together.

Stella Moris married Julian Assange in Belmarsh Prison in 2022

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