A British judge on Wednesday approved the extradition of Julian Assange to the U.S. to face spying charges. The case will now go to Britain’s interior minister for a decision, though the WikiLeaks founder still has legal avenues of appeal.
The procedural step, in what has been a long-running and high-profile legal battle, was announced at a hearing in central London after the U.K. Supreme Court last month refused Assange permission to appeal against a lower court’s ruling that he could be extradited.
The U.S. has asked British authorities to extradite Assange so he can stand trial on 17 charges of espionage and one charge of computer misuse. American prosecutors say Assange unlawfully helped U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning steal classified diplomatic cables and military files that WikiLeaks later published, putting lives at risk.
Supporters and lawyers for Assange, 50, argue that he was acting as a journalist and is entitled to First Amendment protections of freedom of speech for publishing documents that exposed U.S. military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan. They argue that the case against him is politically motivated.
Assange’s lawyers say he could face up to 175 years in jail if he is convicted in the U.S., though American authorities have said the sentence was likely to be much lower than that.
Assange has been held at Britain’s high-security Belmarsh Prison in London since 2019, when he was arrested for skipping bail during a separate legal battle. Before that, he spent seven years inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden to face allegations of rape and sexual assault.
Sweden dropped the sex crimes investigations in November 2019 because so much time had elapsed, according to the Associated Press.