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U.K. judges debate whether Julian Assange can appeal his extradition to the U.S.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Julian Assange spent seven years in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, then five years in a high security prison. His latest move is up to a High Court in London. Today judges there began hearing two days of arguments over the WikiLeaks founder's future. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from London.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: (Shouting) Julian Assange.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hundreds of protesters gathered outside London's High Court chanting...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: (Chanting) U.S., U.K...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Hands off Assange.

FRAYER: ...U.S., U.K., hands off Assange.

Inside, two judges are deciding whether Julian Assange is allowed to appeal his extradition to the U.S., even though the U.K. government has already signed an extradition order. U.S. prosecutors have charged Assange with 17 counts of espionage and one count of computer misuse over WikiLeaks' publication in 2010 of hundreds of thousands of secret files related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They included this grainy black-and-white video from 2007...

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You see all those people standing down there?

FRAYER: ...Of a U.S. helicopter firing Hellfire missiles at civilians in Baghdad, including two Reuters' journalists. Kristinn Hrafnsson is an Icelandic journalist who's been running WikiLeaks while Assange is in jail. And he calls that video...

KRISTINN HRAFNSSON: The napalm girl of the Iraq War. It showed the true nature of the - that war.

FRAYER: The napalm girl was an iconic photo from 1972, which helped turn public opinion against the Vietnam War. He says the Baghdad video, like that Vietnam photo, was in the public interest for Americans to see. The U.S. Army intelligence analyst who leaked that video and thousands of other files to Assange was Chelsea Manning. She went to prison, then had her sentence commuted. U.S. authorities still want to try Assange. Here's Senator Joe Manchin talking to reporters in 2019 when Assange was indicted.

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JOE MANCHIN: I think it's very good for us to finally get him on U.S. soil so we can investigate. We can basically cross-examine. We can find out the facts that only he knows.

FRAYER: Assange's lawyers are fighting extradition on three grounds. They say this case is political, that Assange is suicidal and that his prosecution would threaten freedom of the press everywhere.

STELLA ASSANGE: He's being accused of journalism.

FRAYER: That's Assange's wife, Stella Assange, outside the courthouse today. She calls Assange a publisher and says this case sets a precedent for any journalist to be prosecuted for publishing leaked documents.

ASSANGE: It's an attack on all journalists all over the world. It's an attack on the truth, and it's an attack on the public's right to know.

FRAYER: Judges here are not deciding whether Assange is a journalist or a spy. They're also not examining WikiLeaks' role in the 2016 U.S. election, when it published Democratic Party emails allegedly hacked by Russia. The judges are only deciding if Assange can appeal his extradition to the U.S. And if London's High Court says no, his lawyers say they'll ask the European Court of Human Rights to intervene if Assange is not, by then, already on a plane to the U.S.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.