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Julian Assange Can Appeal Decision to Extradite Him to U.S., U.K. Court Rules

LONDON — A British court ruled on Monday that the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange can appeal a decision that would allow for his extradition to the United States, where he would face charges under the Espionage Act in connection with obtaining and publishing secret government documents.

The latest twist in the long-running case comes after a decision last month that Mr. Assange could be extradited, a reversal of a lower-court decision in a legal battle that has turned on whether prison conditions in the United States during his detention would be too harsh for his mental health.

Lord Chief Justice Ian Burnett of the High Court, in announcing the ruling in a brief court appearance on Monday morning, stipulated that the decision was allowed on a very narrow point — that assurances from the United States on Mr. Assange’s treatment came so late in the process.

The high court refused to send the case straight to the Supreme Court, but allowed for Mr. Assange’s legal team — which has argued that his mental state has grown increasingly fragile — to appeal to the court over that delay.

“What happened in court today is precisely what we wanted to happen,” Stella Morris, Mr. Assange’s partner, said outside the Royal Courts in central London after the announcement. “Make no mistake,” she added, “we won today in court.”

The Supreme Court will now decide whether it will hear an appeal, a process that could take months. And even as Ms. Morris and Mr. Assange’s legal team described the day’s events as a victory, they noted that he remained in detention.

“Julian has to be freed,” Ms. Morris said. “And we hope that this will soon end. We are far from achieving justice in this case.”

Last year, a lower court judge in Britain rejected the extradition request, saying Mr. Assange might be driven to suicide if he was held at the highest security prison in the United States. But last month, Britain’s High Court said that it was satisfied by assurances made by the Biden administration that Mr. Assange would not be held in this facility, and if convicted, he might be allowed to serve his sentence in his native Australia if he requested that.

The charges against Mr. Assange stem from the 2010 publication of diplomatic and military files on his website, WikiLeaks, after they were leaked by Chelsea Manning, a former Army intelligence analyst.

The indictments, which were handed down during the Trump administration, accuse Mr. Assange of participating in a criminal hacking conspiracy by offering to aid Ms. Manning in covering her tracks and also encouraging hackers to obtain and send secret material.

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What are the criminal charges brought on by the U.S.? After his expulsion from the embassy, the U.S. unsealed an indictment against Mr. Assange and sought his extradition. Prosecutors have accused him of violating the Espionage Act for his role in the 2010 disclosures and of participating in a hacking conspiracy. (He is not charged for the publication of the D.N.C. emails in 2016.)

Why does his case raise media freedom issues? The solicitation and publication of government secrets is a journalistic-style activity, whether or not Mr. Assange counts as a journalist. That raises novel First Amendment issues and could establish a precedent constraining investigative journalism about military, intelligence and diplomatic matters.

Where is Mr. Assange now? After he was expelled from the embassy, he was sentenced to 50 weeks in jail in London for for breaching bail conditions related to the rape inquiry; he has remained in prison while the U.S. extradition case is pending.

Can the U.S. extradite him? In January, a court rejected the U.S. extradition request on the grounds that Mr. Assange might be driven to suicide by American prison conditions. The Trump administration appealed, and the Biden administration later made assurances of humane treatment. On Dec. 10, a higher court ruled that Mr. Assange can be extradited. His lawyer said they will seek to appeal.

They also accuse him of violating the Espionage Act by soliciting and publishing secret information, charges that could raise profound First Amendment issues.

The trial is playing out in a British courtroom after Mr. Assange spent years holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, fleeing there in 2012 as he faced an investigation on accusations of sexual assault in Sweden. Those charges were eventually dropped.

He was ejected from the embassy in 2019, and on the same day, the United States unsealed an indictment against him on hacking charges. Weeks later, he was charged under the Espionage Act, and has been detained in Belmarsh prison in London since 2019.

Rebecca Vincent, who has been monitoring the extradition hearing for Reporters Without Borders and was in the courtroom on Monday, said the decision was a welcome one.

“This is positive because there is another point of review here in the U.K., there is another stage with the courts rather than politicians that could see extradition refused,” she said. “So we very much hope that is the outcome.”

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