LONDON — WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on Friday came one step closer to facing charges in the United States of spying and conspiring to hack into government computers after Washington won an appeal over his extradition in a British court.
“This is the judgment of the court,” said Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett in Friday's ruling, which found that a past decision against extraditing Assange might have been different in light of more recent assurances from the U.S. that he would not be held under highly restrictive conditions.
“That risk is in our judgment excluded by the assurances which are offered. It follows that we are satisfied that, if the assurances had been before the judge, she would have answered the relevant question differently,” Burnett said.
Assange's legal team promised to appeal, with his brother and fiancée vowing to keep fighting against his extradition.
Assange, 50, is wanted in the U.S. to face trial on 18 charges, including breaking espionage laws after WikiLeaks published thousands of secret U.S. files in 2010.
The WikiLeaks founder, who is currently being held at Belmarsh prison in London, has denied any wrongdoing. He was not at the hearing.
The development comes after U.S. authorities brought a High Court challenge against a ruling made in January by then-district judge Vanessa Baraitser, who said that Assange should not be extradited to the U.S. due to concerns over his mental health and a risk of suicide.
Speaking with NBC News in a phone interview from New York City on Friday, Assange's brother, Gabriel Shipton, said his family feared that Assange would "not survive" extradition.
“We live in fear that ... Julian will not survive this,” Shipton, 39, said. “He’s been ... crushed and you can really see the toll it’s taken on him over the years.”
WikiLeaks and Assange burst onto the international scene with the release of footage from a 2007 airstrike in Baghdad that resulted in the deaths of two Reuters journalists, among others.
The video, which WikiLeaks released under the title “Collateral Murder,” helped feed a growing sense of unease among Americans about the protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and secret practices of the military.
WikiLeaks gained more attention in 2010 after it published scores of confidential U.S. records, which American officials said put lives at risk.
The leak, which saw the release of classified defense documents on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as on detainees at Guantanamo Bay, sparked an international outcry.
The Obama administration did not indict Assange in the immediate aftermath of the leak, but the WikiLeaks founder was later charged with violating the Espionage Act under former President Donald Trump.
Chelsea Manning, the Army member who shared information with WikiLeaks was released under the prior Obama administration after spending around a year behind bars for refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating Assange.
Assange’s lawyers have told the court that even though the U.S. had assured reasonable treatment if the WikiLeaks founder was extradited, there is still a risk that he could take his own life.
They urged the court to ignore assurances from the U.S. that their client would not be subject to harsh detention conditions, known as Special Administrative Measures.
Even if he was not subjected to such conditions, Assange’s lawyers said evidence heard during the original extradition hearing suggested he would be detained in conditions of extreme isolation that could impact his mental health.
Responding to Friday’s decision, Stella Moris, Assange’s fiancée, told reporters after the verdict: “We will appeal this decision at the earliest possible moment.”
The ruling was “dangerous and misguided” and a “grave miscarriage of justice,” she said.
Assange's legal team confirmed that they would be seeking permission to appeal the decision to the Supreme court. The application to do so must be made in writing within 14 days.
Nils Melzer, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture, also condemned the decision.
Noting that it came on International Human Rights Day, the day the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, Melzer said the decision was “disgraceful.”
“He’s actually being extradited to the U.S. based on diplomatic assurances that, really, are not worth the paper that they’re written on,” he told NBC News in a phone interview.
Melzer said he believed Western governments were looking to make an example out of Assange.
“The Western states are simply afraid of the business model of WikiLeaks, which is really enabling whistleblowing on a large unprecedented scale on the internet,” he said. “I fear this is what the states are afraid of.”
Nick Vamos, a partner at Peters & Peters Solicitors LLP in London and a former head of extradition at the Crown Prosecution Service, said he understood the court’s decision.
“The assurances (from the U.S.) were very clear,” he said, adding that they “directly addressed” concerns about Assange’s risk of suicide in a U.S. prison.”
Given that the U.K. “has a very high level of trust” with the U.S., he said it was unlikely that the court would reject the those assurances.
Shipton said he wanted the Biden administration to “drop the charges” against his brother and “walk the walk when it comes to press freedom.”
Secretary of State “Antony Blinken yesterday (was) calling on the world to free all jailed journalists, and I think the Biden administration can send the message now that will be heard around the world that they dropped this case against a publisher,” he said after the ruling on Friday. “It will set the standard and all the other nations around the world will follow that example.”
Sweden had previously sought Assange’s extradition from the U.K. over alleged sex crimes.
He was expected to be sent to Sweden in 2012, but fled to the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he spent seven years before being forced out in April 2019 and jailed for breaching British bail conditions.
By that point, the Swedish case against him had already been dropped, but U.S. authorities demanded his extradition.