LONDON - Key figures in Britain's opposition Labour Party said Friday the government should oppose the extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the United States on charges of conspiring to break into a Pentagon computer.
Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said in a tweet that the U.S. is trying to have Assange extradited because he exposed “evidence of atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Diane Abbott, Labour's spokeswoman for domestic affairs, said the government should block the extradition on human rights grounds. She said the U.S. case against Assange is about the “embarrassment of the things he's revealed about the American military and security services.”
The politicization of Assange's case reflects the wide interest in the legal future of a man hailed by some as a heroic whistleblower standing up to governments, and condemned by others as a willing stooge who helped the Russians boost the campaign chances of President Donald Trump, who had showered praise on WikiLeaks in 2016 and welcomed its release of Hilary Clinton's campaign emails.
Assange faces what is likely to be a titanic struggle to fend off extradition to the U.S. — and possibly a second extradition request from Sweden on rape allegations.
Police arrested the WikiLeaks founder Thursday at the Ecuadorian embassy in London after Ecuador withdrew his asylum. He is in British custody awaiting sentencing for jumping bail in 2012.
U.S. Justice Department officials seek to put Assange on trial for allegedly conspiring to break into a classified government computer at the Pentagon. The charge was announced after Assange was taken into custody. If found guilty, Assange faces a maximum five years in prison.
It is also possible that Assange, 47, will face an extradition request from Sweden if prosecutors there decide to pursue allegations of rape and sexual misconduct against him.
Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in 2012 after he was released on bail in Britain while facing extradition to Sweden on the allegations. He had stayed inside the embassy building for nearly seven years.
Swedish prosecutors dropped the case against Assange in 2017, saying at the time there was no prospect of bringing him to Sweden because of his protected status inside the embassy. The allegations by two women have not been tested in court and Assange has denied wrongdoing.
Assange received a verbal rebuke in his first London court appearance Thursday afternoon when District Judge Michael Snow found him guilty of breaching his bail conditions.
“Mr. Assange's behavior is that of a narcissist who cannot get beyond his own selfish interests,” Snow said.
Assange's next court appearance was set for May 2 via prison video-link in relation to the extradition case, a process that involves several layers of appeal that could take several years.
Extradition lawyer Ben Keith said the court will not assess the evidence against Assange in an effort to determine his guilt or innocence, but will scrutinize whether the offense he is accused of in the U.S. would be a crime in Britain.
“The most likely outcome is that he will be extracted to the United States,” he said.
Britain is bound by law not to extradite a suspect to a country where he or she could face execution for the crime, but this is not an issue at the moment because the crime Assange faces does not put him at risk of capital punishment, he said.
In rare cases where U.S. law would allow the death penalty, such as first-degree murder or terrorism, U.S. officials typically facilitate extradition by providing assurances to Britain that capital punishment would not be sought, Keith added.
If Sweden also makes an extradition request, it would be up to Britain's Home Secretary to determine which would take priority. Typically the first request made — in this case from U.S. officials — would be acted on first, but officials have some leeway.