Julian Assange extradition could take months, or even years

Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, holds up a fist before speaking to media and supporters from a balcony at the Ecuadorian embassy in London. (Bloomberg pic)

LONDON: Lawyers for the WikiLeaks founder said he will fight extradition to the US where he faces charges that he took part in a hacking conspiracy with ex-Army analyst Chelsea Manning to disclose classified government material.

While Assange’s attorneys argued that the charges are an illegal attempt to punish a journalist for publishing information, extradition lawyers said that the best he will be able to do is delay his arrival to the US through a process that will likely stretch into 2020.

“In theory, he could drag it out for years,” said Nick Vamos, a partner at law firm Peters & Peters who was previously head of extradition at the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service.

Assange’s arrest came after Ecuador expelled him from its embassy in London Thursday.

The 47-year-old had been in the building since 2012, when he sought to escape questioning in a Swedish sexual-assault case.

While that probe was dropped in 2017, the Australian remained in a small apartment in the embassy.

WikiLeaks and Assange became famous in 2010 when the organisation published government secrets supplied by Manning.

More recently, the website put itself at the centre of the 2016 American presidential race by publishing hacked emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

Sarao case

Extradition is generally a slow, deliberate process in UK courts. Navinder Singh Sarao, the British trader accused of making US$40 million spoofing markets from his bedroom, was able to delay his extradition for 18 months until 2016 in a case that most lawyers thought could be resolved far more quickly.

Complicating matters is the Labour party, whose leader Jeremy Corbyn has long backed WikiLeaks.

The leader of the opposition said on Thursday evening that the British government should oppose sending Assange to the US. To do that Labour would first need to win an election against the governing Conservatives, who are unlikely to intervene to help Assange.

Whatever happens in London, the legal deliberations are slowed by appeals that can go all the way to the UK Supreme Court, in addition to various approvals that need to come from the Home Office.

The case could also be complicated if Swedish officials renew their extradition request.

Although they dropped the probe because the statute of limitations ran out on many of the claims while Assange was in hiding, a lawyer for Assange’s alleged victims asked prosecutors to reopen their investigation after the arrest.

‘Laughable’

At a court hearing in London, Assange’s lawyers assailed the fairness of UK and US courts, saying their client could never get a fair trial in either country.

Vamos said it was unlikely those types of political arguments would carry much weight and judge Michael Snow dismissed them as “laughable.”

The next hearing in the case is May 2.

Assange’s lawyer, Jen Robinson, tried to frame the American case in terms of freedom of the press.

“This sets a dangerous precedent for all media organisations and journalists in Europe and elsewhere around the world,” Robinson said outside the London court.

“This precedent means that any journalist can be extradited for prosecution in the United States for having published truthful information about the United States.”

But US prosecutors may have sidestepped that defence by charging Assange over allegations that he helped Manning hack a password on the Defence Department computer network holding classified documents.

Love, McKinnon

At least two British citizens, Lauri Love and Gary McKinnon, were able to fight off extradition to the US over hacking allegations because of mental health issues.

But lawyers said that both men were helped by the fact that the underlying offences occurred in Britain.

“I’m struggling to see on the face of it, the connection in the Assange case to the UK,’’ said Thomas Garner, an extradition lawyer at Gherson in London.

“What the Lauri Love case doesn’t say is, if you’re a hacker, hold up the Lauri Love judgment and say I shouldn’t be extradited.’’

For Assange, the process will likely play out as he sits behind bars. After jumping bail in the Swedish assault case, it’s almost certain that no judge would take a chance on releasing him again.

“He’s never going to get bail while awaiting extradition,” said Rebecca Niblock, a lawyer at Kingsley Napley in London.