A British court has formally approved the extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the United States to face spying charges, with the decision now set to go before Priti Patel, Britain’s home secretary.
Judge Paul Goldspring issued the order during a brief hearing at Westminster Magistrates’ Court on Wednesday, with Assange attending via a video link from nearby Belmarsh Prison.
Assange’s lawyers say that he could be sentenced to up to 175 years behind bars if convicted in the US, though American authorities have said the sentence would likely be far shorter.
Supporters of Assange rallied outside the courthouse on Wednesday, demanding his release.
The court decision doesn’t exhaust the legal options for Assange, 50, who has fought for years to avoid being sent to the US to face charges related to WikiLeaks’ publication of a large trove of classified documents more than a decade ago.
However, the legal order makes that reality more likely and moves the long and drawn out extradition battle one step closer to a conclusion.
The US has requested Assange’s extradition so that he can stand trial on 17 charges of espionage and one charge of computer misuse. American prosecutors say Assange helped US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning steal classified diplomatic cables and military files, which WikiLeaks then published, putting lives at risk.
Supporters and lawyers for Assange, however, argue that he was acting as a journalist and is entitled to First Amendment protection. They say the case is politically motivated.
The judge’s decision came a month after the UK Supreme Court refused Assange permission to appeal against a lower court’s ruling that said he could be extradited.
Assange’s lawyers now have four weeks to make submissions to Patel. They could also seek to appeal to the UK's High Court. Assange's lawyer, Mark Summers, told the court that the legal team had “serious submissions” to make.
Assange has been held at Britain’s high-security Belmarsh Prison since 2019 when he was arrested for skipping bail during a separate legal battle. Before that, he spent seven years inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to avoid being extradited to Sweden, where he was facing allegations of rape and sexual assault.
Sweden dropped the sex crimes investigations in November 2019, as too much time had elapsed.