Mr Julian Assange was arrested yesterday after the Ecuadorian government withdrew the asylum they had given him in their embassy, thereby depriving him of the immunity they had conferred upon him from arrest. He was first arrested for failing to attend court on 29 June 2012 in contravention of his bail conditions. He was then further arrested on behalf of US authorities under an extradition warrant under section 73 of the Extradition Act 2003.
The shadow Home Secretary has intervened urging the Prime Minister to block the extradition of Mr Assange to the United States on human rights grounds, calls echoed by the Leader of the Opposition and the Shadow Lord Chancellor. The purpose of this post is to explain why, legally, this cannot be done. Ironically, the best hope Mr Assange now has of avoiding extradition to the US is if the Swedish authorities apply for him to be extradited there for other offences.
The Extradition Act 2003
The United States is a “category 2” country for the purposes of the Extradition Act 2003. In almost all respects, the decision whether to grant extradition is a matter for the courts, and not for the Secretary of State. In particular it is for the judge, not the Secretary of State, to decide whether extradition may be denied on human rights grounds. This is for good reasons that are illustrated by the Assange case itself. It is best to have cases like this decided by rules set down dispassionately in advance and adjudicated upon by judges, rather than through the discretion of politicians whose choices may be influenced by considerations unrelated to the justice of the case. We need clear rules of extradition that may be quickly applied. If the UK wishes those who are suspected of violating its criminal law to be tried here, and not to be able to flee to other jurisdictions to escape sanction, comity requires that we extradite to other countries those accused of offences there. There need to be safeguards in place (for example ensuring that any person extradited will obtain a fair trial) but we do not wish the extradition hearing to enable the accused to be able to run all the same substantive arguments as to his innocence as he would in the criminal trial (thereby obtaining two bites of the justice cherry, and encouraging flight).
Under the doctrine of specialty, a person extradited to stand trial may only be tried for those offences specified, and not for any other pre-extradition offences. The offence alleged in the US indictment is that of conspiring with Chelsea Manning to obtain unauthorised access to information held on a computer holding information of the United States classified as “secret”. Hacking.
In the United Kingdom, it would similarly be an offence to conspire to commit the unauthorised obtaining of data held on a computer contrary to section 1 of the Computer Misuse Act 1990 (this is of significance, as we shall see).
The Role of the Judge
The first issue for the judge is to determine whether the offence on the warrant is an extradition offence (we will not extradite for, say, road traffic offences, or for breaches of esoteric offences we do not recognise).
An extradition offence is one that is both an offence in the UK and the country seeking extradition. Further that offence must carry a term of imprisonment of 12 months or longer. The maximum prison sentence for the UK equivalent offence is 2 years. This “dual criminality” test here seems satisfied.
Second the court must consider if any of the bars to extradition apply: double jeopardy, passage of time, if the real motive for the prosecution is in fact to punish the defendant for another reason such as political belief, hostage-taking considerations, and the forum seeking extradition is inappropriate for reasons of justice.
It may be that some will argue that the motivation for prosecuting Mr Assange is for his political beliefs, but this seems hard to sustain. It is his alleged role in the hacking that is the concern, not his libertarian views.
This last requirement (the forum) is the only one possibly applicable, but is itself carefully defined. The essential questions are whether the United States is the appropriate forum for any trial (it plainly is) and whether such a trial would be unfair on the defendant? It was on this basis that Mr Lauri Love (another alleged hacker) successfully resisted extradition to the United States, because of his physical and mental fitness to be extradited. As far as is known, no equivalent consideration applies to Mr Assange, but his condition after seven years confined to the Ecuadorian embassy may not be good.
Third for some countries the court must conclude that there is evidence which would be sufficient to make a case requiring an answer if there were a summary trail of an information against him. This however is not required for many states, including the United States.
The third requirement is that the extradition must be compatible with accused’s Convention rights as defined by the Human Rights Act. Most obviously, if the accused would not be afforded a fair trial extradition would be refused under article 6. It was on this basis of the accused’s human rights that in 2012 Theresa May as Home Secretary refused the extradition of Mr Gary McKinnon’s to the United States on the basis of his article 2 right to life (there was a risk of suicide were he to be extradited). However, this power to decline on human rights grounds was (rightly) transferred to the courts by the Crime and Courts Act 2013, reducing the Secretary of State’s role.
The most relevant Convention Right applicable to Mr Assange is Article 10 (freedom of expression). After all, Mr Assange’s motive was to disseminate information through Wikileaks, which he then did. Would extradition to the United States violate his right to freedom of expression?
Given the “dual criminality” rule, it is hard to understand how it could. If Mr Assange were to be tried for equivalent offences in the United Kingdom, would the court interpret the Computer Misuse Act to permit this kind of hacking, or declare that that Act is incompatible with the Human Rights Act? This seems implausible. Mr Assange is not simply charged with publishing information obtained illegally by Chelsea Manning, but with conspiring to obtain unauthorised information from a computer system. This is not required by freedom of expression.
The Secretary of State
The extradition process is now “substantially judicialised“. The Secretary of State’s role is now limited to considering whether he is prohibited from allowing extradition on the basis of the death penalty, specialty, or earlier extradition to the UK. None of these apply here, and so if the court makes an order for extradition the Secretary of State must comply.
The calls by newspapers and politicians for the government to act to prevent extradition of Mr Assange are therefore misconceived at best. This is a matter for the courts, and on its face all the conditions for extradition are met.
There is however one way in which Mr Assange might avoid extradition to the United States.
Originally, Mr Assange had sought asylum in order to avoid a European Arrest Warrant from Swedish authorities in relation to rape allegations. This warrant is no longer extant, but the proceedings may recommence.
Where the Secretary of State receives competing extradition request he may order one request to be deferred until the other has been disposed of. The relevant considerations include the seriousness of the offences, where they were committed and the date when each request was received. Rape is a more serious offence than hacking, and the original Swedish warrant was seven years earlier.
If Mr Assange were extradited to Sweden, he could not be extradited from there to the United States for offences the UK would not also extradite him for (an aspect of the specialty rule). He could not therefore be any worse off. Sweden’s extradition treaty with the United States is differently worded from that between the US and UK, and prohibits extradition for an “offense connected with a political offense”. Mr Assange’s alleged hacking may be said to be covered by this wording, in a way that it is not under the UK legislation.
Ironically therefore, once Mr Asasange has served his punishment in the United Kingdom for skipping bail, his best hope for avoiding extradition to the United States is that he is extradited to Sweden first.