A protester stands outside the High Court in London, Monday, May 20, 2024.

A protester stands outside the High Court in London, Monday, May 20, 2024.
Photo: Kin Cheung (AP)

Julian Assange can file an appeal by Friday to fight his extradition to the United States, according to a new ruling from a British court on Monday. The decision, first reported by the New York Times, comes as Assange sits in a London prison over computer hacking and espionage charges first brought by the U.S. Department of Justice under President Donald Trump.

Assange’s right to fight his extradition comes down to fundamental questions about how the 52-year-old WikiLeaks co-founder would be treated in prison if he was actually extradited to the U.S. to face federal charges. One early British court ruling in 2021 noted that the U.S. prison system allows the use of solitary confinement, largely considered torture by other wealthy countries. It was on that basis the court initially denied the extradition to the U.S., though that was reversed by a higher court a year later.

The British court also noted U.S. law allows the death penalty for espionage, another practice seen as barbaric by many people in the rest of the world. Even so, Assange’s efforts to appeal his extradition had been denied until Monday’s ruling. Another issue central to the extradition fight is whether Assange can claim protections under the First Amendment since he’s an Australian citizen.

But the Department of Justice may not even care whether the First Amendment applies in this case, given the details under which the federal agency is charging Assange. He faces 18 counts of violating the Espionage Act as well as criminal hacking over his alleged involvement in providing instructions to Chelsea Manning on how to access classified computers to gain the material that was ultimately published by WikiLeaks under the name “Collateral Murder.” Those documents included a video of U.S. war crimes in Iraq. The thinking goes that giving instructions on how to hack computers is not protected speech under the First Amendment.

For its part, the U.S. Justice Department has pledged not to kill Assange in a three-page note filed with the British court that’s hearing his extradition case last month. The note also said Assange can “raise” a First Amendment defense, though it’s carefully worded enough that it seems clear the U.S. prosecutors have no plan to let it stick. If they thought Assange had a compelling First Amendment defense it’s unlikely they would’ve brought the case in the first place.

The government of Australia has reportedly asked the U.S. to consider dropping its case against Assange, and President Joe Biden said in April that he was “considering it.” But there haven’t been any updates since Biden’s offhand response to a question from reporters and there have been no signs that his Justice Department has any plans to drop the case.

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