Extraditing Julian Assange promises to be a long, difficult process

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange leaves the Westminster Magistrates Court in the police van, after he was arrested in London, Britain, on April 11, 2019.

LONDON (NYTIMES) - With the arrest in London of 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.

US authorities made a preliminary extradition request on Thursday (April 11), soon after 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 Assange. Complicating matters, prosecutors in Sweden could reopen a rape investigation involving Assange and request extradition to that country, forcing the British government to decide which case would take precedence.

"It's not simple, and the defence will argue everything they can," said Rebecca Niblock, a partner at British law firm Kingsley Napley who specialises 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, leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party, wrote on Thursday on Twitter, "The extradition of Julian Assange to the US 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 signalling that it takes a much less favourable view of 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 UK's criminal justice system, or in the US". But, he added, "Whenever someone has a track record of undermining the UK 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, Javid's Labour counterpart, said, "Julian Assange is not being pursued to protect US national security; he's being pursued because he has exposed wrongdoing by US administrations and their military forces."

The partisan divide raises the prospect that a change of government could change 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, 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 e-mails, damaging the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton.

Robert Mueller, the special counsel who investigated Russian interference in that election, reported in court documents that Russian intelligence was the source of those e-mails, which Assange has denied.

But Assange has been in the sights of US 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. Manning was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 35 years in prison, and served nearly seven years before her punishment was commuted by President Barack Obama.

WikiLeaks and its defenders argue that it was following a standard practice of news organisations, 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 Assange, a native of Australia, went further, conspiring with Manning, then known as Bradley Manning, to help her hack into the military network.

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, 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 Assange's defence. US authorities sought the extradition of Lauri Love, a British man charged with hacking into dozens of US 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 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 unauthorised access to dozens of government computers, in search, he said, of information about UFOs.

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

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

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

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