US will have to wait before trying WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange

After British case, extradition fight could take months or years, expert says.

April 11, 2019, 4:10 PM

The Department of Justice doesn’t have any expectations about when Julian Assange may actually be brought to the U.S. to face the conspiracy charge against him, a Justice official told ABC News on Thursday, given the prospect of British court proceedings and a potentially lengthy extradition fight across the Atlantic.

Though British police said Assange was arrested Thursday “on behalf of the United States authorities,” he was first taken to a local court where he was found guilty of a bail-jumping charge – a crime for which he could serve up to a year in prison there. The sentencing date for that offense has not been set.

Then there’s the impending court battle over extradition that itself could last months or years, according to Amy Jeffress, a former Justice Department attaché to the U.S. Embassy in London.

“The extradition process won’t be quick,” Jeffress told ABC News.

The U.S. and the U.K. are historically very close allies, and Jeffress said the way in which Assange was arrested suggested the British Home Office had approved the U.S. extradition request that would’ve come from the U.S. Embassy in London. The Home Office said in a statement Thursday Assange was arrested “in relation to a provisional extradition request,” indicating it had not yet certified a “full” request. The extradition process affords Assange ample opportunity for challenging the decision, from the British magistrate courts to various appeals courts to potentially the European Court of Human Rights.

“This is not an automatic win for the U.S.,” Jeffress said.

The fight will also likely be a vocal public relations one, she said, because the Home Office can block extradition requests even if appeals have been lost in court, as was the case of hacker Gary McKinnon. McKinnon in the early 2000s hacked U.S. government computers in search of evidence of UFOs. After a decade-long, very public campaign against extradition, then-Home Secretary Theresa May blocked the U.S. extradition request on humanitarian grounds.

It may be an uphill battle for Assange with regard to the current U.K. Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, who tweeted Thursdayafter Assange's arrest, “No one is above the law.”

Still, Jennifer Robinson, Assange’s London-based attorney, set the stage for the battle Thursday, telling reporters outside the bail hearing that Assange would fight extradition.

She said the U.S. charges against Assange set a “dangerous precedent,” and she called on the United Kingdom to “make a full assurance that a journalist will never be extradited to the United States for publishing activity.”

Journalists are generally provided more legal protections related to the publication of classified material, but the U.S. government has sought for years to portray WikiLeaks as something other than a normal media outlet -- including then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo in 2017 going so far as to describe WikiLeaks as a “hostile intelligence service.”

The U.S. indictment unsealed Thursday against Assange accuses him of a single count of a “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion” related to his purported active role in his interactions with former military intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning who leaked U.S. government material to Assange in 2010, including allegedly trying to help crack a password. It’s a narrow charge that former National Security Agency attorney April Doss said seemed designed to avoid thorny First Amendment issues related to journalists.

“The indictment is really clear that it’s an indictment for computer crimes, not for journalism," Doss told ABC News.

Other experts, however, said they were concerned because the indictment, in their view, was not only about the alleged attempted password breach.

“It’s very troubling because it treats routine journalistic practices as part of a criminal conspiracy,” said Alex Abdo, Litigation Director at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. “It’s a warning shot fired across the bow of the First Amendment.”

Assange is scheduled to appear via video-link for a May 2 hearing about extradition.

The bail-jumping charge stemmed from 2012 when Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy as he was sought over sexual assault allegations in Sweden. The sexual assault accusations, which Assange denied, were later dropped, but the bail-jumping charge remained.

ABC News’ Lauren Pearle and Dimitrije Stejic contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the nature of the U.S. extradition request, as described by the U.K.’s Home Office

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