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Extraditing Assange Promises to Be a Long, Difficult Process

Category: Europe,World

LONDON — With the arrest in London of the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and the news of a criminal case against him in the United States, anyone expecting him to appear in an American courtroom should be warned: Extraditing him will not be quick, and it will not be easy.

The American authorities made a preliminary extradition request on Thursday, soon after Mr. Assange was jailed for jumping bail, but that was just the first in a long series of legal filings, hearings, appeals and administrative decisions. And in the end, experts say, the result is far from certain.

The process is mostly up to the courts, but politicians will have a hand in it, too, and were already drawing battle lines over Mr. Assange. Complicating matters, prosecutors in Sweden could reopen a rape investigation involving Mr. Assange and request extradition to that country, forcing the British government to decide which case would take precedence.

“It’s not simple, and the defense will argue everything they can,” said Rebecca Niblock, a partner at the British law firm Kingsley Napley who specializes in extradition law. “I think it is going to be a long one. I’d say minimum a year and a half, but if things get complicated, it could be much longer.”

Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, wrote on Thursday on Twitter, “The extradition of Julian Assange to the U.S. for exposing evidence of atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan should be opposed by the British government.”

The Conservative Party government has avoided taking a position, while signaling that it takes a much less favorable view of Mr. Assange — and sees in him a potent political issue.

Sajid Javid, who as home secretary has a role in the process, said in Parliament on Thursday that he “won’t be drawn into the request for extradition” or discuss “the details of the accusations against Mr. Assange, either in the U.K.’s criminal justice system, or in the U.S.”

But, he added, “Whenever someone has a track record of undermining the U.K. and our allies, and the values we stand for, you can almost guarantee that the leadership of the party opposite will support those who intend to do us harm.”

Diane Abbott, Mr. Javid’s Labour counterpart, said, “Julian Assange is not being pursued to protect U.S. national security; he’s being pursued because he has exposed wrongdoing by U.S. administrations and their military forces.”

The partisan divide raises the prospect that a change of government could change Mr. Assange’s fortunes, because his case could take years to end. Britain’s next scheduled general election would be in 2022, and there is widespread speculation that Prime Minister Theresa May might call early elections.

For years, Mr. Assange has been simultaneously hailed as a hero for transparency, and cursed as a reckless anarchist and publicity-seeker. In 2016, WikiLeaks published stolen Democratic Party emails, damaging the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton.

Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel who investigated Russian interference in that election, reported in court documents that Russian intelligence was the source of those emails, which Mr. Assange has denied.

But Mr. Assange has been in the sights of American officials since 2010, when WikiLeaks published an immense trove of classified material, primarily about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, taken from military computer systems by Chelsea Manning, an analyst in Army intelligence. Ms. Manning was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 35 years in prison, and spent nearly seven years in prison before her punishment was commuted by President Barack Obama.

WikiLeaks and its defenders argue that it was following a standard practice of news organizations, publishing information of public interest, even if the person who supplied the information obtained it illegally.

The case is about the “publishing of documents, of videos of killing of innocent civilians, exposure of war crimes,” Kristinn Hrafnsson, a WikiLeaks editor, told a news conference on Thursday. “This is journalism.”

But the indictment unsealed on Thursday alleges that Mr. Assange, a native of Australia, went further, conspiring with Ms. Manning, then known as Bradley Manning, to help her hack into the military network.

Mr. Assange’s defenders, including a number of human rights activists, contend that the case against him is not about hacking, but about releasing information that embarrassed the United States.

For extradition to proceed under British law, the United States must submit a full extradition request, and Britain’s home secretary must certify that it is legally valid and send it to the courts — all by mid-June, Mr. Javid said. Then the matter goes to an extradition hearing before a judge, whose rulings can be appealed all the way up to Britain’s Supreme Court.

Two recent, high-profile cases could point the way for Mr. Assange’s defense. The American authorities sought the extradition of Lauri Love, a British man charged with hacking into dozens of United States government computer systems, and Stuart Scott, a banker charged with currency manipulation.

In each case, a judge ruled against the defendant but the decision was overturned on appeal, partly on the grounds that the alleged illegal acts occurred in Britain, which meant any prosecution should take place in Britain.

If the courts uphold extradition, it is up to the home secretary to actually order it. The law gives the home secretary some leeway to defy the ruling and refuse extradition, though not much.

In another hacking case, the United States sought to prosecute Gary McKinnon, who was accused of gaining unauthorized access to dozens of government computers, in search, he said, of information about U.F.O.s.

After a decade of legal battles, the British courts ultimately decided against him. But in 2012, the home secretary at the time, Mrs. May, refused to order extradition based on Mr. McKinnon’s mental health and the risk that he might commit suicide.

Since then, court decisions have narrowed the range of discretion available, but the courts could take Mr. Assange’s condition into account, said Ms. Niblock, the extradition lawyer.

“His physical and mental health have undoubtedly deteriorated over the past seven years,” she added.

In 2010, Swedish prosecutors ordered the arrest of Mr. Assange, who was living in Britain, to be questioned about allegations of sexual misconduct and rape in Sweden. While free on bail, he fought extradition to Sweden — which he said would turn him over to the United States — until he exhausted his appeals in 2012. Mr. Assange has denied the allegations against him.

Rather than submit to extradition, he took refuge in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, and the country granted him asylum. British prosecutors charged him with violating the terms of his bail.

In 2017, Swedish prosecutors set aside the rape case and the extradition request, saying that the effort was moot with Mr. Assange in the embassy.

On Thursday, Ecuador’s government withdrew his asylum status after almost seven years, and allowed British police to enter the embassy and arrest him. He was swiftly convicted on the bail charge, for which he could be sentenced to up to a year in prison.

The next day, the Swedish Prosecution Authority said it was looking into the possibility of reopening its case against him.


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