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British court permits Julian Assange extradition to the U.S. on spying charges

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

One of the senior courts in the U.K. says WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange can be extradited to the United States. The high court overturned a lower ruling. Assange is wanted by U.S. authorities over the publication of thousands of classified documents.

And we're going to discuss this with London-based journalist Willem Marx. Welcome to the program, sir.

WILLEM MARX: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: This has gone on - the Assange story has gone on for so many years that I feel we should remind people who he is and why he's important.

MARX: Yeah - no - understandably so. It's been more than a decade since he first kind of came into public consciousness as the founder of this organization, WikiLeaks, that set out to increase transparency around government behavior. And very famously, in 2010, 2011, the group was responsible for releasing thousands of classified documents that proved both damaging to the U.S., as well as to its allies, some of its adversaries, some of its partners, and, of course, therefore damaging the relationship between the U.S. and some of those other nations.

INSKEEP: And he has, of course, been abroad in - for quite some time - hiding out in embassies, finally out of an embassy and now wanted by U.S. authorities. Why did a - or he has been wanted all along by U.S. authorities - why did a lower court rule that he should be able to stay in the U.K.? And then why did the high court say he should go?

MARX: The lower court ruling earlier this year, back in January, essentially decided that he was at risk of deteriorating mental health were he to be taken to the U.S. under extradition and held in highly restrictive conditions inside the U.S. penal system. His lawyers argued that this could lead to his mental health worsening, potentially to suicide attempts. And so it was decided by the judge in that particular case that he should be allowed to stay inside the U.K., and the U.S. should not be able to extradite him. What's changed now is that following some pretty unprecedented assurances from U.S. authorities about the way he will be held in detention once he arrives in the U.S. - if he arrives in the U.S. - the high court judges here in London have ruled that because of those assurances, they no longer have the concerns of that lower court from earlier this year. And they therefore see no reason why they should not allow the U.S. to extradite him.

INSKEEP: Unprecedented assurances, you said - the U.S. must really want to put him on trial.

MARX: That does seem to be the case. You know, he's essentially been promised that he will not be kept in solitary confinement. He will not be moved to a supermax facility, like some of the ones you have in places like Colorado. And what they're looking to try and prosecute him on - 17 counts of espionage, one charge of computer misuse - all related, of course, to those publications of those thousands of leaked military and diplomatic documents that were so embarrassing. The charges, Steve - they carry a maximum sentence of around 175 years in prison. But authorities in the U.S. have said that were he to be convicted, he could serve out that prison sentence - again, unusually - in his native Australia.

INSKEEP: Interesting - nevertheless, we have the possibility of a rather spectacular trial that touches on questions of press freedom and transparency and also what it means to be an agent of a foreign power.

MARX: Absolutely. And of course, that's why many of the organizations involved in those issues have fought vociferously on behalf of Mr. Assange over the last decade and continue to do so - some of them calling this a miscarriage of justice today.

INSKEEP: Journalist Willem Marx - thanks for your insights - really appreciate it.

MARX: Thanks, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.