Julian Assange has won the right to petititon the United Kingdom Supreme Court to reconsider a recent High Court ruling which paves the way for his extradition to the United States, where he faces the rest of his life behind bars for exposing the truth about US war crimes and other atrocities.
Court hierarchy in the UK
The United Kingdom has a broadly five-tiered court system, which sit as follows (from lowest to highest):
- Magistrates’ Courts
- Crown Court
- County Courts
- High Court
- Court of Appeal
- Supreme Court (formerly the House of Lords) …
- Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.
High Court decision
The High Court in the UK ruled last week that he has an arguable point of law which the
Supreme Court may want to consider.
The question raised is in relation to the circumstances in which judges received and considered assurances from the US about how Mr Assange would be treated in their prisons.
The UK court rulings to date
To understand what this means for Mr Assange’s legal fight against his extradition to the US, we need to go back to a decision made by a UK Judge who specialises in extradition matters in January 2021.
The judge ruled that while the US did have a case to prosecute Mr Assange, he could not be sent from the UK to stand trial because there were concerns for his safety and wellbeing, particularly with regard to Mr Assange’s ailing health, and there was no guarantee that US authorities would care for him.
However, in December, the High Court reversed this decision saying that the US had provided good enough assurances that proved Mr Assange could be safely cared for.
A legal question that deserves an answer
Now, however, the High Court has determined that there is a valid legal question over exactly how those assurances from the US had been provided as part of the appeal, but not prior to it.
“Assurances [over treatment] are at the heart of many extradition proceedings,” said Lord Burnett, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales in a statement.
He said the High Court refused permission to appeal – but whether or not the issue needs to be heard in the Supreme Court “is a matter appropriately for its decision”.
Mr Assange’s lawyers now have 14 days to make the application to the Supreme Court.
While the ruling is a victory, – it means that Mr Assange’s lawyers can petition the Supreme Court, but there is no guarantee that the Supreme Court will agree to consider the case. However, it will delay the Wikileaks founder’s extradition to the US – at least for now.
Amnesty International has welcomed the decision by the High Court, but it says it has concerns that the court had “dodged its responsibility” on ensuring issues of public importance were fully considered by the judiciary.
“The courts must ensure that people are not at risk of torture or other ill-treatment. This was at the heart of the two other issues the High Court has now effectively vetoed…If the question of torture and other ill-treatment is not of general public importance, what is?” said Amnesty International spokesperson Massimo Moratti.
Under international law torture and other forms of ill-treatment are strictly illegal, however, despite this, torture does still occur in many countries.
No support from the Australian Government
Mr Assange has been in a London prison for almost three years fighting extradition to the USA where he is wanted over computer hacking offences and the publication of classified documents.
Documents leaked to the world in 2010 and 2011 revealed that the US military had killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents during the war in Afghanistan. Other leaked files showed that during the war with Iraq, tens of thousands of civilians had been killed and prisoners had been tortured by Iraqi forces.
Mr Assange faces 18 federal charges in the US. If convicted, he could face a sentence of up to 175 years in prison.
In the meantime, despite continued pressure both from here in Australia and internationally, particularly because of the case’s implications for press freedom, the Australian Federal Government will not intervene. It claims this out of respect for the United Kingdom’s legal process, despite the Australian citizen’s dire situation.
The government’s standard response is that various officials “have raised the issue with their US and UK counterparts and outlined expectations of due process, humane and fair treatment, access to proper medical and other care, and access to legal advice, and will continue to do so.”