WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange fights US extradition with free speech argument

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's lawyers told London's High Court on Monday that he should not be extradited to the United States over the mass leak of secret U.S. documents as he may not be able to rely on his right to free speech.

Publication: 20.05.2024 - 14:48
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange fights US extradition with free speech argument
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Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the court ahead of what could be the culmination of 13 years of legal battles, with two judges due to declare whether they are satisfied by U.S. assurances that Assange, 52, can rely on the First Amendment right if he is tried for spying in the U.S.

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

His lawyer Edward Fitzgerald said the judges should not accept the assurance given by U.S. prosecutors that Assange could seek to rely upon the rights and protections given under the First Amendment, as a U.S court would not be bound by this.

"We say this is a blatantly inadequate assurance," he told the court.

Fitzgerald accepted a separate assurance that Assange would not face the death penalty, saying the U.S. had provided an "unambiguous promise not to charge any capital offence".

The U.S. said its First Amendment assurances were sufficient.

James Lewis, representing the U.S. authorities, said in court documents that the assurance "cannot bind the courts", but that the U.S. courts would "take solemn notice and give effect so far as they are able to a promise given by the executive"


Protesters gathered outside the court early on Monday, tying yellow ribbons to the iron railings, holding placards and chanting "Free, free Julian Assange". In a plea to U.S. President Joe Biden, flags read "#Let him go Joe".

One protester, Emilia Butlin, 54, told Reuters she wanted to show solidarity: "He, with his work, has offered tremendous service to the public, informing them about what governments are doing in their name."

Assange's wife Stella appeared in court with his brother and father, but Assange stayed away for health reasons, Fitzgerald said.

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

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

The U.S. authorities want to put the Australian-born Assange on trial on 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 come from human rights groups, media bodies and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, along with 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, since 2019, held in the Belmarsh top security jail, latterly while awaiting a ruling on his extradition.

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 for an emergency injunction blocking deportation pending a full hearing by that court.

If the judges reject the U.S. assurances, Assange will have permission to appeal his extradition case and the appeal might not be heard until next year.

The judges might also have decided to consider not only whether Assange can appeal but also the substance of that appeal. If they find in his favour in those circumstances, he could be released.

"We hope that the courts do the right thing today and find in Julian’s favour. But if they don’t, we will seek an emergency injunction from the European Court of Human Rights," said Stella Assange, who married him in Belmarsh in 2022.

She has said that, whatever the outcome, she would continue to fight for his liberty. If he is freed, she said she would 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 serious risk of suicide.

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