LONDON — Julian Assange’s extradition to the United States was approved Friday by the British government, a decisive step toward the WikiLeaks founder facing trial on espionage charges.
The U.K. Home Office said in a statement that the extradition order for Assange had been signed, giving him 14 days to appeal the decision.
The WikiLeaks founder has been waging a yearslong legal battle to avoid being sent to the U.S. to face trial on 18 charges, including breaking espionage laws. He has spent the past three years in London’s Belmarsh prison waiting to find out whether he will be extradited.
“In this case, the U.K. courts have not found that it would be oppressive, unjust or an abuse of process to extradite Mr Assange,” the Home Office spokesperson said. “Nor have they found that extradition would be incompatible with his human rights.”
A decision on whether to extradite Assange had been anticipated from British Home Secretary Priti Patel after a British court ruling in April that he could be sent to the U.S.
The WikiLeaks founder has denied any wrongdoing in connection with the release of thousands of secret U.S. files in 2010. If convicted, Assange, 50, could face a sentence of up to 175 years in prison.
On Friday, his family vowed to keep fighting for him.
“Today is not the end of the fight. It is only the beginning of a new legal battle,” said Assange’s wife, Stella, according to The Associated Press.
She said the U.K. government’s decision marked “a dark day for press freedom and for British democracy.”
“Julian did nothing wrong,” she said. “He has committed no crime and is not a criminal. He is a journalist and a publisher, and he is being punished for doing his job.”
Washington won an appeal over Assange’s extradition in a British court last December, with the court ruling that a past decision against handing Assange over to the U.S. might have been different in light of fresh assurances that he would not be held under highly restrictive conditions if extradited.
His family and legal team have repeatedly warned of his deteriorating mental health, which they have said will be put at greater risk if he is extradited to the U.S.
Prior to his time at Belmarsh, Assange had spent seven years living at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden over allegations of rape and sexual assault.
In an interview with NBC News in December, Assange’s brother, Gabriel Shipton, said his family feared Assange would “not survive” extradition to the U.S.
“We live in fear that … Julian will not survive this,” Shipton said. “He’s been … crushed and you can really see the toll it’s taken on him over the years.”
Assange and WikiLeaks came under the international spotlight after releasing footage from a 2007 airstrike in Baghdad that had resulted in the deaths of two Reuters journalists and others.
Released under the title “Collateral Murder,” the video sparked widespread upset among Americans about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
WikiLeaks then gained further attention in 2010 after publishing a trove of classified defense documents on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as well as on detainees at Guantanamo Bay, in an act U.S. officials said put lives at risk.
The Obama administration did not immediately indict Assange. Instead, he was charged with violating the Espionage Act under former President Donald Trump.
Chelsea Manning, a former Army member who had shared the intel with WikiLeaks, spent years behind bars after refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating Assange. She was released while the Obama administration was still in office.