WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange faces US extradition judgment day, key dates recapped

If the high court rules the extradition can go ahead, Assange's legal avenues in Britain are exhausted, and his lawyers will turn to the European Court of Human Rights

19 May 2024 - 20:39
By Reuters
A supporter of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at a picket in London, March 26 2024. File photo
Image: Toby Melville/Reuters A supporter of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at a picket in London, March 26 2024. File photo

A British court could give a final decision on Monday on whether WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange should be extradited to the United States over the mass leak of secret US documents, the culmination of 13 years of legal battles and detentions.

Two judges at the high court in London are set to rule on whether the court is satisfied by US assurances that Assange, 52, would not face the death penalty and could rely on the First Amendment right to free speech if he faced a US trial for spying.

Assange's legal team say he could be on a plane across the Atlantic within 24 hours of the decision, could be released from jail, or his case could yet again be bogged down in months of legal battles.

“I have the sense that anything could happen at this stage,” his wife Stella said last week. “Julian could be extradited, or he could be freed.”

She said her husband hoped to be in court for the crucial hearing.

WikiLeaks released hundreds of thousands of classified US military documents on Washington's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — the largest security breaches of their kind in US military history — along with swathes of diplomatic cables.

In April 2010 it published a classified video showing a 2007 US helicopter attack that killed a dozen people in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, including two Reuters news staff.

The US authorities want to put the Australian-born Assange on trial over 18 charges, nearly all under the Espionage Act, saying his actions with WikiLeaks were reckless, damaged national security and endangered the lives of agents.

His many global supporters call the prosecution a travesty, an assault on journalism and free speech, and revenge for causing embarrassment. Calls for the case to be dropped have ranged from human rights groups and some media bodies, to Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and other political leaders.

Assange was first arrested in Britain in 2010 on a Swedish warrant over sex crime allegations that were later dropped. Since then he has been variously under house arrest, holed up in Ecuador's embassy in London for seven years, and held since 2019 in Belmarsh top security jail, latterly while he awaited a ruling on his extradition.

“Every day since the seventh of December 2010 he has been in one form of detention or another,” said Stella Assange, who was originally part of his legal team and married him in Belmarsh in 2022.

If the high court rules the extradition can go ahead, Assange's legal avenues in Britain are exhausted, and his lawyers will immediately turn to the European Court of Human Rights to seek an emergency injunction blocking deportation pending a full hearing by that court into his case at a later date.

On the other hand, if the judges reject the US submissions, then he will have permission to appeal his extradition case on three grounds, and that might not be heard until next year.

It is also possible the judges could decide that Monday's hearing should consider not just whether he can appeal but also the substance of that appeal. If they find in his favour in those circumstances, he could be released.

Stella Assange said that whatever the outcome she would continue to fight for his liberty. If he is freed she plans to follow him to Australia or wherever he was safe. If he is extradited, she said all the psychiatric evidence presented at court had concluded he was at very serious risk of suicide.

“We live from day to day, from week to week, from decision to decision. This is a way that we've been living for years and years,” she told Reuters.

“This is just not a way to live — it's so cruel. And I can't prepare for his extradition — how could I? But if he's extradited, then I'll do whatever I can, and our family is going to fight for him until he's free.”

TIMELINE: Key events and details in Assange's life:

July 1971 — Assange is born in Townsville, Australia, to parents involved in theatre. As a teenager, he gains a reputation as a computer programmer, and in 1995 is fined for computer hacking but avoids prison on condition he does not offend again.

2006 — Founds WikiLeaks, creating an internet-based “dead letter drop” for leakers of classified or sensitive information.

April 5 2010 — WikiLeaks releases leaked video from a US helicopter showing an air strike that killed civilians in Baghdad, including two Reuters news staff.

July 25 2010 — WikiLeaks releases more than 91,000 documents, mostly secret US military reports about the Afghanistan war.

October 2010 — WikiLeaks releases 400,000 classified military files chronicling the Iraq war. The next month, it releases thousands of US diplomatic cables, including candid views of foreign leaders and blunt assessments of security threats.

November 18 2010 — A Swedish court orders Assange's arrest over sex crime allegations, which he denies. He is arrested in Britain the next month on a European Arrest Warrant but freed on bail.

February 2011 — London's Westminster magistrates' court orders Assange's extradition to Sweden. He appeals.

June 14 2012 — The British Supreme Court rejects Assange's final appeal and five days later he takes refuge in Ecuador's embassy in London and seeks political asylum, which Ecuador grants in August 2012.

May 19 2017 — Swedish prosecutors discontinue their investigation, saying it is impossible to proceed while Assange is in the Ecuadorean embassy.

April 11 2019 — Assange is carried out of the embassy and arrested after Ecuador revokes his political asylum. He is sentenced on May 1 to 50 weeks in prison by a British court for skipping bail. He completes the sentence early but remains jailed pending extradition hearings.

May 13 2019 — Swedish prosecutors reopen their investigation and say they will seek Assange's extradition to Sweden.

June 11 2019 — The US justice department formally asks Britain to extradite Assange to the United States to face charges that he conspired to hack US government computers and violated an espionage law.

November 19 2019 — Swedish prosecutors drop their investigation, saying the evidence is not strong enough to bring charges, in part because of the passage of time.

February 21 2020 — A London court begins the first part of extradition hearings.

January 4 2021 — A British judge rules that Assange should not be extradited to the US to face criminal charges, saying his mental health problems mean he would be at risk of suicide.

December 10 2021 — The US wins an appeal against the ruling after a judge says he is satisfied with a US package of assurances about the conditions of Assange's detention.

March 14 2022 — Britain's Supreme Court refuses to grant Assange permission to appeal against a decision to extradite him to the US.

March 23 2022 — Assange marries long-term partner Stella Moris, the mother of his two children fathered inside the Ecuadorean embassy, inside a British high-security prison.

June 17 2022 — Britain orders Assange's extradition to the US, a decision then appealed by Assange.

June 2023 — Judge at London's high court rules Assange has no legal grounds to appeal.

February 20 2024 — Assange's lawyers launch what his supporters say would be his final attempt to stop his extradition.

March 26 2024 — The extradition is put on hold after the court said the US must provide assurances that Assange would not face the death penalty. On Monday, May 20, the court will decide if the submissions meet its requirement.