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Possibility of Trump pardon overshadows pending Assange extradition ruling

Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, holds up a fist before speaking to media and supporters from a balcony at the Ecuadorian embassy in London on May 19, 2017.

LUKE MACGREGOR/BLOOMBERG

By ELLEN MILLIGAN | Bloomberg | Published: December 31, 2020

A U.K. judge will rule Monday on whether WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should be extradited to the U.S. to face criminal charges after weeks of talk about a possible pardon from President Donald Trump.

The decision from a London judge will come after President Donald Trump, whose administration brought the charges, issued a plethora of pardons to political allies. And lawyers say the odds of clemency from Trump are better than a judge buying Assange's arguments that his human rights will be trampled on in America.

"It's very rare for the magistrates to refuse extradition requests from the U.S.," said Anthony Hanratty, a lawyer at BDB Pitmans in London, who specializes in extradition cases. "There's a quite strong presumption that the U.S. will comply with obligations in relation to human rights and legal process."

Assange, 49, has been in custody or self-imposed exile in London for the better part of a decade. He initially sought refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in 2012 rather than face questioning in a Swedish sexual assault case, which was later dropped. Last year, when he was expelled from the embassy, he faced U.S. charges related to WikiLeaks disclosures.

He's accused of working with U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to get classified documents from databases containing about 90,000 Afghanistan war-related activity reports, 400,000 Iraq war-related reports and 250,000 State Department cables.

At a pair of extradition hearings earlier this year, delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, Assange's lawyers focused their arguments on allegations that he couldn't receive a fair trial in the U.S.

But Assange drew praise from Trump during the 2016 campaign when WikiLeaks released emails that undercut Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. And it seems that Assange's supporters have moved on from the extradition battle to focus on a possible pardon.

Assange's fiancée, Stella Moris, has spent the last few months making direct pleas to Trump via Twitter and appearances on Fox News.

"I beg you, please bring him home for Christmas," she tweeted last month.

Officials at WikiLeaks declined to comment ahead of Monday's ruling and instead referred to Moris's tweets. The U.S. Justice Department declined to comment.

The prospect of presidential intervention first gained traction early last year when Assange's lawyers said a congressman and a Trump associate met Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy in the summer of 2017 to discuss a pardon if he revealed the source behind the leaked Democratic National Committee emails.

The pardon fever has only grown in recent weeks after Trump issued pardons to more than a dozen people. The recipients were mostly political allies, including Paul Manafort, his former campaign manager, and Charles Kushner, the real estate developer and father of the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

Trump would face opposition to a pardon from inside his own administration. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo — when he was CIA director — described WikiLeaks as a hostile force that threatens the U.S.

Barring a pardon, the extradition process in London will likely drag on no matter how Judge Vanessa Baraitser rules Monday. Appeals could take 18 to 24 months with possible challenges going to the U.K. Supreme Court and even the European Court of Human Rights, Hanratty said.