The UK government has taken an initial step in the process to determine whether Julian Assange, wanted by the United States under charges of conspiracy and espionage, should be extradited to the United States.

British Home Secretary Sajid Javid signed an extradition order on Wednesday, June 12, weeks after his office received the extradition request from the U.S. Justice Department. Assange’s case will now advance to a series of court hearings to determine whether the extradition order should be carried out. Assange is expected to appear in court on Friday, June 14, for the first hearing.

Speaking to the BBC, Javid confirmed, “There is an extradition request from the U.S. that is before the courts tomorrow, but yesterday I signed the extradition order and certified it. …The final decision is now with the courts.”

Assange has been held in a high-security prison facility in London since his arrest by British police on April 11. He was taken from the Ecuadorian Embassy when Ecuador revoked his diplomatic immunity, a privilege Assange had held for seven years. He is currently serving a sentence of 50 weeks for having breached the conditions of his bail after he was accused of a sexual assault in Sweden.

Small groups of protesters have gathered in London intermittently to demonstrate on his behalf.

Assange is charged for his alleged role in conspiring to hack U.S. Army computers, as well as publish information

According to the U.S. Justice Department, Assange faces 18 federal charges in connection with his alleged involvement with the leak of classified information by former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. At least 17 of these charges are violations of the Espionage Act, and each count could carry a maximum sentence of between five and 10 years in federal prison if he is convicted.

In April, shortly after Assange was arrested in London, the Justice Department issued a statement to explain, “The superseding indictment alleges that Assange was complicit with Chelsea Manning, a former intelligence analyst in the U.S. Army, in unlawfully obtaining and disclosing classified documents related to the national defense.” The Justice Department contends that Assange “actively encouraged” Manning to hack into the Army computer network.

In a subsequent call with reporters, U.S. Attorney General Zachary Terwilliger of the Eastern District of Virginia clarified that Assange is charged with conspiring with Chelsea Manning to steal and release classified information, rather than merely providing a conduit to leak intelligence.

Terwilliger explained, “Assange is charged for his alleged complicity in illegal acts to obtain or receive voluminous databases of classified information and for agreeing and attempting to obtain classified information through computer hacking. The United States has not charged Assange for passively obtaining or receiving classified information. …To be clear again, Assange is not charged simply because he is a publisher.”

The Justice Department has been careful to articulate this distinction in response to groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and other First Amendment advocates, who have objected to Assange’s arrest and consider his work to fall into the category of investigative journalism. These groups feel strongly that journalists must maintain the right to publish classified information without fear of reprisal.

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