A court in London has ruled that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange can now pursue an appeal against the British government's decision to approve his extradition to the United States.

The decision Monday by two judges on Britain's High Court of Justice clears the way for a full appeal hearing of that extradition, in which Assange's lawyers can argue that his First Amendment rights under the U.S. constitution may be limited by his nationality. Assange is an Australian citizen, and neither a citizen nor national of the United States.

The U.S. wants to charge him with 17 acts of espionage and one count of computer misuse, for an alleged conspiracy to take possession of and then publish national defense information.

Assange gained global prominence in 2010 when Wikileaks, the organization he founded, released hundreds of thousands of classified documents focused on the U.S. military's activities in Iraq and Afghanistan that were leaked to the site by Chelsea Manning, then an Army intelligence analyst.

In February, lawyers for Assange submitted nine separate grounds for a possible appeal, but then in March the two High Court judges, Victoria Sharp and Adam Johnson, responded to those requests by saying there was a "real prospect of success" on only three grounds.

They directed in their March judgement that the U.S. government should provide assurances that might obviate the need for any appeal: namely by convincing the court that Assange would not face the death penalty; that he would be treated no differently than a U.S. citizen; and that he would be protected under the right to free speech afforded under the First Amendment.

In court on Monday, one of Assange's lawyers questioned the assurances that have since been made by U.S. prosecutors, pointing out that the separation of powers in the United States meant that the executive branch responsible for charging Assange would be unable to force the judicial branch — in the form of a federal court in Virginia — to accept certain parameters for the trial.

A lawyer representing the U.S. government in court had earlier insisted that the "judicial branch of the United States will take due notice of this solemn assurance given by its government in the course of international relations." But that U.S. federal court, said Assange's lawyer Edward Fitzgerald, "can and will apply U.S. law, whatever the executive may say or do."

A years-long legal battle

This decision by one of Britain's highest courts represents the latest twist in a years-long legal saga that has embroiled Assange since a Swedish woman first accused him of rape in 2010. He was arrested for transfer to Sweden, but jumped bail in Britain and then holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy, insisting that the charges were false and a pretext for him to be further transferred to the United States.

Swedish prosecutors ultimately dropped the rape charges, but Assange was forcibly removed from the Ecuadorian embassy and placed in Belmarsh, a maximum security prison in southeast London, as the U.S. unveiled its charges against him.

The 52-year old was not in court Monday on health grounds, but must now wait for his legal team to prepare the full appeal of his extradition.

That hearing could ultimately lead to his release if judges decide that he would not face the same legal protections in a U.S. court as he would under the British legal system.

If the appeal fails, Assange has at least one more option

But even if his appeal is ultimately denied by the British courts, Assange's lawyers say they will appeal to an even higher authority, the European Court of Human Rights. That court would then need to intervene swiftly with an injunction to prevent Assange's transfer to the U.S.

Critics of the U.S. government's pursuit of Assange hailed Monday's decision as an important victory, but warned the American prosecution efforts continued to overshadow press freedom.

"A successful prosecution would criminalize a great deal of the investigative journalism that is crucial to our democracy," said Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, in a statement. "The Justice Department should never have charged Assange under the Espionage Act, and it should drop the charges now."

The hearing in central London at the Royal Courts of Justice was attended by dozens of Assange's supporters, chanting and using bullhorns to assail the British and American authorities.

His wife Stella — who originally met him when working on his legal team — had said in a recent interview with Reuters that she was concerned he could have been placed on a plane to the U.S. as soon as this week, where he could theoretically face up to 175 years in prison.

The U.S. government has repeatedly argued his actions were reckless and dangerous, and have brought the charges against him under the Espionage Act.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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