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Julian Assange’s Family React to Biden Suggesting U.S. Might Drop Case

WorldEuropeJulian Assange’s Family React to Biden Suggesting U.S. Might Drop Case

Five years after Julian Assange, theWikiLeaks founder, was first imprisoned in a high-security facility in Britain while fighting a United States extradition request, the Biden administration has given the clearest signal to date that it might drop its prosecution of him.

But Mr. Assange’s wife said on Thursday that her hopes were tempered by the reality that his extradition case had reached a critical moment.

“It’s been five years, and he’s at the closest he’s ever been to extradition now,” his wife, Stella Assange, said in an interview, adding, “Obviously with a comment like this from the president, it’s a good sign and we receive it with hope. But, you know, that doesn’t stop us from dreading the worst.”

President Biden, when asked by a reporter on Wednesday about a request from Australia, Mr. Assange’s home country, that he be allowed to return there, replied, “We’re considering it.” Those three words offered the suggestion that the United States might no longer pursue Mr. Assange on charges under the Espionage Act over WikiLeaks’ publishing of tens of thousands of secret military and diplomatic documents more than a decade ago.

Ms. Assange said that the timing of the president’s statement was notable coming just days before a deadline in the British court hearings on her husband’s extradition. When a British high court ruled last month that Mr. Assange could not be immediately extradited until the United States met certain conditions, the judges gave American prosecutors until April 16 to offer assurances on his potential treatment.

If Washington does provide the assurances, including over his First Amendment rights and protection from the death penalty, a further hearing is scheduled in London for May 20 to decide Mr. Assange’s fate.

On Thursday, Ms. Assange urged the Biden administration to drop the charges against her husband, saying it was the “right thing to do.”

The charges against Mr. Assange could amount to a sentence of up to 175 years in prison, although U.S. lawyers have said that he was more likely to be sentenced to four to six years.

Rebecca Vincent, the director of international campaigns for Reporters Without Borders, which has urged the release of Mr. Assange and which advocates press freedom, noted in a statement that he had already spent five years in prison in Britain, despite not being convicted of any crime.

“No matter what you think of Assange, five years is more than enough,” she said. “No one should face such treatment for publishing information in the public interest — and the country of the First Amendment could, and should, do better.”

The indictment against Mr. Assange, 52, was filed under the administration of Mr. Biden’s predecessor, Donald J. Trump, in 2019, nine years after WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of secret military and diplomatic documents that included revelations about civilian deaths in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The documents had been leaked by Chelsea Manning, an army intelligence officer who was sentenced to 35 years in prison but was released after seven years when President Barack Obama commuted her sentence.

In 2012, Mr. Assange fled to the Ecuadorean Embassy in London to escape extradition to Sweden, where he faced an inquiry into unrelated sexual misconduct and rape allegations that were subsequently dropped. He stayed there for seven years before Ecuador stopped protecting him, allowing him to be promptly arrested for skipping bail.

Weeks later, in May 2019, the United States indictment accused him of having violated the Espionage Act by soliciting and publishing the secret government information, charges that raise First Amendment issues. Since then, he has been held in Belmarsh Prison in London.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese of Australia has discussed the case with President Biden before, and in February, lawmakers in Australia backed calls for Mr. Assange’s release. Hours after Mr. Biden’s comments this week, Mr. Albanese described them as “encouraging.”

“I believe this must be brought to conclusion and Mr. Assange has already paid a significant price, and enough is enough,” the Australian leader said in a statement to Sky News. “There is nothing to be gained by Mr. Assange’s continued incarceration.”

Amid speculation the Justice Department could also be considering a plea deal in Mr. Assange’s case, as reported by The Wall Street Journal last month, Barry Pollack, a lawyer for Mr. Assange, said in a statement that it would be inappropriate for the legal team to comment. But he said that Mr. Assange’s lawyers had been “given no indication that the Department of Justice intends to resolve the case and the United States is continuing with as much determination as ever to seek his extradition on all 18 charges.”

Ms. Assange has argued that prosecuting her husband would be “a problem for the press” no matter which administration holds power after the U.S. elections in November, adding “the problems must be obvious to Biden that it will become his legacy unless the administration have a long think to reconsider it.”

“The case, the prosecution, of course should have been dropped from Day 1,” she said. “So it’s the right thing to do, and it’s long overdue.”

Ms. Vincent of Reporters Without Borders likewise remained cautiously optimistic. She said her organization hoped that the Biden administration was “considering a solution to the case that involves Julian Assange’s immediate release with no further time to be served in prison, and a stop to these endless extradition proceedings.”

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