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Why is Julian Assange facing extradition to the U.S?

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Australian Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is facing extradition to the U.S. where he could receive a 175-year jail sentence.
Julian Assange faces extradition to the U.S.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s final appeal to avoid extradition from the UK to the U.S. is currently underway in the UK High Court.

Extradition is the transfer of a person from one country to another to face criminal proceedings.

Assange is facing 18 charges in the U.S. relating to the leaking of thousands of confidential government documents. If found guilty, he faces penalties of up to 175 years behind bars.

Julian Assange

Julian Assange was born in Queensland in 1971. He worked as a computer programmer before setting up the website ‘WikiLeaks’ in 2006.

WikiLeaks was designed to share censored materials involving “war, spying and corruption” with the public.

It claims to have published more than 10 million documents.

It was launched during the U.S. led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The leaks

In 2010, WikiLeaks posted thousands of classified documents relating to the U.S’ wars in the Middle East.

The leaks included claims U.S. armed forces were responsible for an estimated 15,000 unreported civilian deaths. The documents also revealed secret diplomatic dealings between the U.S. government and foreign leaders.

Former U.S. Army intelligence officer Chelsea Manning was found responsible for handing the information to WikiLeaks. Manning served jail time over her role in the 2010 leaks.

Embassy protection

In 2012, Ecuador’s embassy in the UK provided Assange with political asylum (protection) which meant he couldn’t be extradited to the U.S. if spying charges were brought against him. At the time, Ecuador’s Foreign Minister said: “There are serious indications of retaliation… that could endanger his safety, integrity and even his life.”

Ecuador’s protection also meant that Assange couldn’t be extradited to Sweden to face rape charges from 2010. Those rape charges were later dropped by Swedish authorities.

Arrest

While he was living in the Ecuadorian embassy, the U.S. began mounting a legal case against Assange, alleging the leaked documents threatened its national security.

The Ecuadorian embassy eventually revoked Assange’s protection in April 2019 and he was arrested by London police on behalf of the U.S.

He’s been held in a UK high-security prison ever since.

Extradition

Since it announced charges against Assange, the U.S. has requested UK authorities facilitate his extradition — meaning he would be forcibly deported from the UK to the U.S. to face trial.

Assange could face a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison if a U.S. court finds him guilty of all 18 charges.

In 2021, a UK court rejected the U.S. extradition request. The judge argued sending Assange to the U.S. would pose a significant mental health risk. However, the UK government reversed the court’s decision in 2022. Assange appealed this ruling.

UK High Court

Assange’s final appeal against extradition is underway in London’s High Court this week. Assange did not attend the first day of hearings due to poor health.

One of Assange’s lawyers, Edward Fitzgerald, told the court Assange could expect a “flagrant denial of justice” if he was forced to face trial in the U.S.

Assange’s wife Stella addressed supporters outside court in London, calling the prosecution of her husband “politically motivated”.

Australian efforts

Australian MPs passed a motion last week calling on U.S. and UK officials to drop the legal case against Assange. It repeated calls to allow him to return home.

However, Shadow Minister Dan Tehan accused the motion of “criticising” the U.S. for prosecuting Assange.

While the motion won’t impact the outcome of the UK High Court’s decision, it makes clear the Australian Government’s position on the matter.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese also spoke about Assange to U.S. President Joe Biden last year.

Human rights

A growing number of international organisations are urging the UK not to proceed with Assange’s extradition, including the UN Human Rights Council.

A UN spokesperson said Assange “would be at risk of treatment amounting to torture or other forms of ill-treatment or punishment” in the U.S.

Human rights advocacy group Amnesty International said a U.S. trial could undermine the right for people to be informed by the media on matters of public interest.

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