On 17 June 2022, the British Home Secretary, Priti Patel, issued a statement confirming that she had approved the US Government’s request to extradite Julian Assange. The Australian founder of Wikileaks is facing 18 criminal charges of computer abuse and espionage.
This decision means Assange is one step closer to extradition, but has not yet reached the final stage in what has been a years-long process. Patel’s decision follows a decision in March to deny leave to appeal by the British Supreme Court, which upheld the Supreme Court’s decision accepting assurances provided by the US government and concluding that there were no remaining legal barriers to Assange’s extradition are not.
The Supreme Court ruling set aside an earlier district court ruling that Assange’s extradition to the United States would be “unfair and oppressive” because the prison conditions he was likely to experience would put him at high risk for suicide. According to the Supreme Court, the U.S. government’s insurance has adequately reduced the risk.
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Another career ahead
Wikileaks has already announced that Assange will appeal the decision of the Home Secretary to the British courts. He can appeal on a matter of law or fact, but must obtain leave from the Supreme Court to launch an appeal. It is a new legal process rather than a continuation of the judicial stage of extradition that followed his arrest in 2019.
Assange’s brother said the appeal would include new information, including reports of conspiracies to assassinate Assange.
Several legal issues raised before the district court in 2020 are also likely to be raised in the next appeal. The District Court in particular ruled the question of whether the charges were political offenses, and therefore not extravagant crimes, could only be considered by the Home Secretary. The question of whether and how the Home Secretary decided on this issue may now be ripe for argument.
Assange’s next appeal will also seek to re-litigate whether the US government’s assurance about the prison conditions Assange is facing is adequate or reliable. His lawyers will also again demand that the British courts consider the role of freedom of expression in determining whether Assange should be extradited.
Assange will be detained at Belmarsh Prison while his appeal is pending. The decision of the Supreme Court on its appeal against the decision of the Home Secretary may possibly be appealed to the Supreme Court.
If, after exhausting all legal avenues in the UK, the order to extradite stands, Assange could take a human rights action to the European Court of Human Rights.
However, the European Court of Justice has rarely ruled that extradition is contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights, except in cases involving the death penalty or life sentences. It has not yet considered freedom of expression in an extradition case.
Further appeals could add years to the saga of Assange’s detention.
Reactions from the Assange family and human rights advocates
Assange’s wife, Stella Moris, called Patel’s decision a “travesty”. His brother Gabriel Shipton called it “shameful”. They promised to fight his extradition by every legal means available.
Agnes Callamard, Secretary-General of Amnesty International:
Assange faces a high risk of prolonged solitary confinement, which would violate the ban on torture or other ill-treatment. Diplomatic assurances provided by the US that Assange will not be held in solitary confinement cannot be taken at face value given previous history.
What role for the Australian government?
Australian Foreign Secretary Penny Wong and Attorney General Mark Dreyfus responded to the latest developments last night. They have confirmed Australia will continue to provide consular assistance to Assange:
The Australian Government was clear in our view that Mr Assange’s case had been dragging on for too long and that it needed to be brought to an end. We will continue to express this view to the governments of the United Kingdom and the United States.
However, it remains unclear exactly what form Australia’s diplomatic or political advocacy is taking.
In December 2021, Anthony Albanese said he could not see what purpose was being served by the continued pursuit of Assange. He is a signer of a petition to free Assange. However, since being sworn in as prime minister, Albanians have opposed calls to publicly demand that the US drop its criminal charges against Assange.
In contrast, Albanians recently made a public call for the release of Sean Turnell from prison in Myanmar.
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In a way, Patel’s decision this week closes a window for stronger advocacy between Australia and the UK. While the matter lay with the British Home Secretary, the Australian Government may have tried to intervene with it as a political issue. Now it seems possible that Australia can return to its long-established position of non-interference in an ongoing court process.
Some commentators argue this is inadequate and that Australia should eventually do more for Assange. Andrew Wilkie, Tasmanian MP, said it was high time Australia treated it as the political issue it was, and demanded from its allies in London and Washington that the matter be brought to an end.
Barrister Greg Barns compared Assange’s situation to that of David Hicks, who was imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay:
The then Howard government brought him back to Australia. This is not unprecedented. It is important that Australia can use the good relationship it has with Washington to ensure the safety of Australians.
These remarks suggest that Australia should focus any advocacy against the US government and make a case that the criminal charges and extradition request be dropped. At this stage, it is impossible to say whether the Albanian government has the will to take a stronger stand on Assange’s freedom. The Prime Minister and Secretary of State certainly invested heavily in foreign relations in the early weeks of their government, emphasizing the importance of the American alliance.
Perhaps strong advocacy on behalf of Assange at this time can be seen as disturbing and risky. The US has had many opportunities, and its own change of government, and yet it has not changed its determination to prosecute Assange. This is despite former President Barack Obama’s decision to mitigate the sentence of Chelsea Manning, the whistleblower who provided classified material to Assange for publication by Wikileaks.
Stronger Australian advocacy can quite possibly be received negatively. Assange’s supporters will continue to demand that Albanians act independently, given the strength of the Australian-US alliance, which is capable of tolerating a point of disagreement.