A British court ruled on Tuesday that Julian Assange can't be extradited to the United States on espionage charges unless US authorities guarantee he won't get the death penalty, giving the WikiLeaks founder a partial victory in his long legal battle over the site's publication of classified American documents.

Two High Court judges said they would grant Assange a new appeal unless US authorities give further assurances within three weeks about what will happen to him. The ruling means the legal saga, which has dragged on for more than a decade, will continue — and Assange will remain inside London's high-security Belmarsh Prison, where he has spent the last five years.

Judges Victoria Sharp and Jeremy Johnson said the US must guarantee that Assange, who is Australian, “is afforded the same First Amendment protections as a United States citizen, and that the death penalty is not imposed”.

The judges said that if the US files new assurances, "we will give the parties an opportunity to make further submissions before we make a final decision on the application for leave to appeal”.

The judges said a hearing will be held May 20 if the US makes those submissions.

The US Justice Department declined to comment on Tuesday.

Assange supporters’ plea

Assange's supporters say he is a journalist protected by the First Amendment who exposed US military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan that was in the public interest.

Assange's wife Stella Assange said the WikiLeaks founder “is being persecuted because he exposed the true cost of war in human lives”.

“The Biden administration should not issue assurances. They should drop this shameful case, which should never have been brought," she said outside the High Court in London.

The ruling follows a two-day hearing in the High Court in February, where Assange's lawyer Edward Fitzgerald said American authorities were seeking to punish him for WikiLeaks' “exposure of criminality on the part of the US government on an unprecedented scale”, including torture and killings.

The US government said Assange's actions went beyond journalism by soliciting, stealing and indiscriminately publishing classified government documents that endangered many people, including Iraqis and Afghans who had helped US forces.

The judges rejected six of Assange's nine grounds of appeal, including the allegation that his prosecution is political. They said that while Assange “acted out of political conviction … it does not follow however that the request for his extradition is made on account of his political views”.

The judges also said Assange could not appeal based on allegations, made by his lawyers, that the CIA developed plans to kidnap or kill Assange during the years he spent holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, to prevent him from trying to flee.

The judges said “plainly, these are allegations of the utmost seriousness”, but concluded they had no bearing on the extradition request.

“Extradition would result in him being lawfully in the custody of the United States authorities, and the reasons (if they can be called that) for rendition or kidnap or assassination then fall away,” the ruling said.

Freedom of speech

They accepted three grounds or appeal: the threat to Assange's freedom of speech, Assange's claim that he faces disadvantage because he is not a US citizen, and the risk he could receive the death penalty.

US authorities have promised Assange would not receive capital punishment, but the judges said that "nothing in the existing assurance explicitly prevents the imposition of the death penalty”.

Jennifer Robinson, one of Assange's lawyers, said that “even if we receive the assurances, we're not confident we can rely on them”.

Assange, 52, an Australian computer expert, has been indicted in the US on charges over Wikileaks' publication in 2010 of hundreds of thousands of classified documents.

US prosecutors say he conspired with US army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to hack into a Pentagon computer and release secret diplomatic cables and military files on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Assange faces 17 counts under the Espionage Act and one charge of computer misuse. If convicted, his lawyers say he could receive a prison term of up to 175 years, though American authorities have said any sentence is likely to be much lower.

Legal battle

Assange's wife and supporters say his physical and mental health have suffered during more than a decade of legal battles and confinement.

Assange's legal troubles began in 2010, when he was arrested in London at the request of Sweden, which wanted to question him about allegations of rape and sexual assault made by two women. In 2012, Assange jumped bail and sought refuge inside the Ecuadorian Embassy.

The relationship between Assange and his hosts eventually soured, and he was evicted from the embassy in April 2019. British police immediately arrested and imprisoned him for breaching bail in 2012. Sweden dropped the sex crimes investigations in November 2019 because so much time had elapsed.

A UK district court judge rejected the US extradition request in 2021 on the grounds that Assange was likely to kill himself if held under harsh US prison conditions. Higher courts overturned that decision after getting assurances from the US about his treatment. The British government signed an extradition order in June 2022.

Timeline of the Assange legal saga

— 2010: In a series of posts, WikiLeaks released almost half a million documents relating to the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

— August 2010: Swedish prosecutors issue an arrest warrant for Assange based on one woman’s allegation of rape and another’s allegation of molestation. The warrant is withdrawn shortly afterward, with prosecutors citing insufficient evidence for the rape allegation. Assange denies the allegations.

— September 2010: Sweden’s director of prosecutions reopens the rape investigation. Assange leaves Sweden for Britain.

— November 2010: Swedish police issue an international arrest warrant for Assange.

— December 2010: Assange surrenders to police in London and is detained pending an extradition hearing. High Court grants Assange bail.

— February 2011: District court in Britain rules Assange should be extradited to Sweden.

— June 2012: Assange enters Ecuadorian Embassy in central London, seeking asylum on June 19, after his bids to appeal the extradition ruling failed. Police set up round-the-clock guard to arrest him if he steps outside.

— August 2012: Assange is granted political asylum by Ecuador.

— July 2014: Assange loses his bid to have an arrest warrant issued in Sweden against him cancelled. A judge in Stockholm upholds the warrant alleging sexual offenses against two women.

— March 2015: Swedish prosecutors ask to question Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy.

— August 2015: Swedish prosecutors drop investigations into some allegations against Assange because of the statute of limitations; an investigation into a rape allegation remains active.

— October 2015: Metropolitan Police end their 24-hour guard outside the Ecuadorian Embassy but say they’ll arrest Assange if he leaves, ending a three-year police operation estimated to have cost millions.

— February 2016: Assange claims “total vindication” as the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention finds that he has been unlawfully detained and recommends he be immediately freed and given compensation. Britain calls the finding “frankly ridiculous.” — September 2018: Ecuador’s president says his country and Britain are working on a legal solution to allow Assange to leave the embassy.

— October 2018: Assange seeks a court injunction pressing Ecuador to provide him basic rights he said the country agreed to when it first granted him asylum.

— November 2018: A US court filing that appears to inadvertently reveal the existence of a sealed criminal case against Assange is discovered by a researcher. No details are confirmed.

— April 2019: Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno blames WikiLeaks for recent corruption allegations; Ecuador’s government revokes Assange’s asylum status. London police haul Assange out of the Ecuadorian Embassy and arrest him for breaching bail conditions in 2012, as well as on behalf of US authorities.

— May 2019: Assange is sentenced to 50 weeks in prison for jumping bail in 2012.

— May 2019: The US government indicts Assange on 18 charges over WikiLeaks’ publication of classified documents. Prosecutors say he conspired with US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to hack into a Pentagon computer and release secret diplomatic cables and military files on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

— November 2019: Swedish prosecutor drops rape investigation.

— May 2020: An extradition hearing for Assange is delayed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

— June 2020: The US files new indictment against Assange that prosecutors say underscores Assange’s efforts to procure and release classified information.

— January 2021: A British judge rules Assange cannot be extradited to the US because he is likely to kill himself if held under harsh US prison conditions.

— July 2021: The High Court grants the US government permission to appeal the lower court’s ruling blocking Assange’s extradition.

— December 2021: The High Court rules that US assurances about Assange’s detention are enough to guarantee he would be treated humanely.

— March 2022: Britain’s top court refuses to grant Assange permission to appeal against his extradition.

— June 2022: Britain’s government orders the extradition of Assange to the United States. Assange appeals.

— May 2023: Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said Assange should be released and “nothing is served” by his ongoing incarceration.

— June 2023: A High Court judge rules Assange cannot appeal his extradition.

— Feb. 20, 2024: Assange’s lawyers launch a final legal bid to stop his extradition at the High Court.

— March 26, 2024: Two High Court judges in London give US authorities three more weeks to submit further assurances, including a guarantee that Assange won’t get the death penalty, before deciding whether they will grant him a new appeal against his extradition.