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London's High Court to rule on whether Assange can appeal extradition to the U.S.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A big ruling is expected today at London's High Court. It involves WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. He spent seven years in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, then five years in a high-security prison. U.S. prosecutors want his next move to be to the U.S. to face trial on espionage charges. Assange's lawyers are fighting that, and a U.K. court will announce today whether it'll allow him to appeal his extradition. NPR's Lauren Frayer has been following this from London and joins me now. Hi, Lauren.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi, Leila. Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So what do these espionage charges stem from?

FRAYER: So the case goes back to WikiLeaks' publication in 2010 of hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. government documents related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This was the biggest security breach of its kind. It included this now-infamous, then-classified video of a 2007 American helicopter attack in Baghdad that killed about a dozen people, including two Reuters journalists. And for...

FADEL: Of course - I remember that.

FRAYER: Yeah. For a lot of Americans, that video really opened their eyes to the nature of the Iraq War. The U.S. Army intelligence analyst who leaked those files, Chelsea Manning, did seven years in prison and then was released under then-President Obama. But Assange was not pardoned and instead faces 17 charges under the U.S. Espionage Act and another charge of computer misuse as well.

FADEL: Wasn't there a sexual assault case against him, too?

FRAYER: There was, and that's exactly why he was arrested in the first place, at the behest of Sweden, where two women had accused him of rape and sexual assault. He denied any wrongdoing there - saw it as a ruse to get him into U.S. custody eventually. So he jumped bail in that case, took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy, where, you'll recall, he stayed for seven years. And then after the Ecuadorians evicted him from their embassy, he was arrested by the U.K. for breaching bail. So the Swedish charges have since been dropped. But in the meantime, the U.S. has charged him with espionage.

FADEL: The ins and outs of this, Lauren - oh, my gosh. So now...

FRAYER: It's hard to follow.

FADEL: Yeah. So now Assange is hoping a British court will help him avoid trial in the U.S. on those spy charges. On what grounds can the London court intervene?

FRAYER: So the High Court will not block his extradition. That's not even on the table. It'll only rule today on whether he's entitled to one last appeal. So even if it grants him an appeal, he could still end up extradited to the U.S. if he loses that appeal. But Assange's lawyers are arguing on a few grounds - first, his health - physical and mental. I interviewed Assange's wife, Stella Assange, who's also a lawyer, last month, and she told me, you know, she's really worried about him possibly being sent into solitary confinement if he's sent to the U.S. Here's how she described it.

STELLA ASSANGE: Julian is at high risk of committing suicide. He will be driven to commit suicide if he's placed in isolation.

FRAYER: She also says the U.S. case against him is politically motivated - that, you know, the same government that Assange shamed with those military leaks is now supposed to give him a fair trial. She doesn't think that's possible. Assange's lawyers also say there are big implications for press freedom here.

FADEL: Yeah, talk about that. How so?

FRAYER: So Assange started out as a hacker in his native Australia, but he now considers himself a publisher. And press freedom groups, Reporters Without Borders and many other groups, say this case sets a dangerous precedent for journalists like you and me to be charged with espionage for publishing leaked documents, even if they are in the public interest.

FADEL: So what do authorities in the U.S. or U.K. say about that?

FRAYER: So the U.S. does not consider Assange a journalist. U.S. prosecutors say he endangered the lives of Iraqis and Afghans on the ground who had been working with the U.S. Assange does have one last option. It's the European Court of Human Rights. He could ask them to get involved if this doesn't go his way today.

FADEL: That's NPR's Lauren Frayer in London. Thank you for your reporting, Lauren.

FRAYER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.