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The British High Court ruled that the U.S. cannot extradite Wikileaks founder Julian Assange on espionage charges unless American officials provide assurances that he will not face the death penalty and will receive First Amendment protections. If the U.S. declines to give assurances, the court will grant Assange the right to appeal his extradition. The ruling gives the U.S. three weeks to provide assurances addressing these grounds. If assurances are given, there will be a hearing on May 20 to determine if they are sufficient and to give a final ruling on whether Assange can appeal.

Assange has been held at London’s Belmarsh Prison since his removal from the Ecuadorian Embassy in 2019. He had sought asylum at the embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden over sexual assault allegations. The investigations into the allegations were eventually dropped, but Assange remained in the embassy for years over concerns about extradition to the U.S. If the British court ultimately rules in favor of extradition, Assange’s only remaining option would be at the European Court of Human Rights. His brother Gabriel Shipton expressed concern about Assange’s deteriorating health and called for a diplomatic solution to have him released and returned to Australia.

Assange faces 17 counts under the Espionage Act for allegedly receiving, possessing, and communicating classified information to the public, as well as one charge alleging conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. He could face up to 175 years in a U.S. maximum-security prison if convicted. The charges were brought by the Trump administration over WikiLeaks’ 2010 publication of cables leaked by U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. The Obama administration in 2013 decided not to indict Assange, but the Trump and Biden administrations have pursued his prosecution.

A bipartisan Congressional resolution has called on U.S. officials to drop charges against Assange, with many press freedom groups warning that his prosecution could set a dangerous precedent to criminalize journalism. The U.K. district court rejected the U.S. extradition request in 2021 over concerns about Assange’s mental health and harsh prison conditions. Higher courts overturned that decision after getting assurances from the U.S. about his treatment. The U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture expressed regret that the Court did not comprehensively address concerns about Assange’s potential treatment in the U.S. and the possibility of a disproportionate penalty.

The Justice Department and State Department declined to comment on the ruling by the British High Court. State Department spokesperson Mathew Miller also declined to comment, emphasizing the significance of the case. Calls have been made for the Biden administration to drop the case against Assange. Stella Assange, Julian’s wife, referred to him as a “political prisoner” and called for the administration to outright drop the case, emphasizing that the outcome will determine if he lives or dies. Press freedom groups have warned of the dangers of Assange’s prosecution under the Espionage Act and have urged the Biden administration to drop the case.

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