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Can Julian Assange Legally Be Extradited To The U.S.?


We're returning now to the story of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who's been indicted on a single count of conspiracy. This weekend, we've been asking what Assange's arrest means in the debate over national security versus press freedom. Now we want to take a look at the question of extradition. We've asked John Bellinger to help us with that. He was the State Department's legal adviser under President George W. Bush, and he's with us now.

Mr. Bellinger, thank you so much for joining us.

JOHN BELLINGER: Nice to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: I understand that there is a U.S.-U.K. extradition treaty which says that someone cannot be extradited from the U.K. for, quote, unquote, "political offense." How is that defined? And does that mean something for this case?

BELLINGER: That's right. There's a extradition treaty that entered into force during the Bush administration. It's been in effect for about 10 years. And it defines the crimes for which individuals can be extradited from the U.S. or from the U.K. And it says that an individual may not be extradited for a political offense, but that's not defined. But historically, under international law, a political offense is an offense against the state such as espionage or sedition or treason.

MARTIN: Would it be fair to assume that Julian Assange's defense will try to make the case that this is all political?

BELLINGER: Oh, absolutely. That's going to be one of their chief defenses, I'm sure. And that's one of the reasons I suspect that the charges by the Justice Department were very carefully tailored not to charge him under our espionage laws but instead to charge him with conspiracy to hack into a computer so that he's not being charged with a political offense. But, of course, his defense lawyers are going to say that this is really all political, it's politically motivated, and that he's really being charged with a crime against the United States.

MARTIN: I understand that there's a hearing. An extradition hearing will be held in the U.K. on May 2. You know, what will that entail? What will we see?

BELLINGER: His defense lawyers will, I'm sure, make a number of arguments, including not only that this really is a political offense. But I'm sure they will argue also that he was a journalist performing a journalistic function. It does appear - although we don't know - that the U.K. government is already working together with the U.S. government and supports the extradition.

MARTIN: So who is the ultimate decision-maker here? And what is that person likely to be guided by, if you have any sense of that? For example, is there any precedent that either side could point to that might give us a sense of how this might proceed?

BELLINGER: Well, there'll be several levels inside the U.K. judicial system. There'll be a hearing before a judge in the U.K. and then probably through an appellate level in the U.K. And then, if history is any indication, if Mr. Assange loses, he could then keep appealing all the way up to the European Court of Human Rights saying that his human rights have been violated. Historically, the British have extradited numerous individuals to the U.S. Although many of them and their defense counsel have argued that they would face unfair or improper trials in the U.S., most of those have been extradited.

But in a few cases in the past, there have been individuals whose extradition from the U.K. to the U.S. have been denied. In this case, this will really be, I think, a battle royal because Assange and his lawyers will argue very forcefully that I'm sure particularly the Trump administration is coming after him for political reasons.

MARTIN: So, as you mentioned earlier, Assange has only been charged with one count of conspiracy. If he's extradited to the U.S., could he face other charges here? And is that something that his lawyers might raise?

BELLINGER: Additional charges may be added before his extradition is sought. But after he is extradited, then the U.S. cannot change the charges later on. That would violate a treaty provision called the rule of specialty. So he could only be tried for the charges for which he is extradited.

MARTIN: That's John Bellinger. He was the State Department's legal adviser under President George W. Bush. He now heads the Global Law and Public Policy Practice Group at the law firm Arnold & Porter.

Mr. Bellinger, thanks so much for talking to us.

BELLINGER: Thanks, Michel. It's always a pleasure.


MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.