Julian Assange: British government assured Ecuador that WikiLeaks founder would not face death penalty in US

Lizzie Dearden

Julian Assange will not face the death penalty if he is extradited to the US, the British government has said.

In newly revealed letters sent to Ecuador’s president Lenin Moreno, both current foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt and his predecessor Boris Johnson said an extradition would not be ordered “unless the home secretary has first received an adequate assurance that the death penalty will not be imposed”.

“You have expressed concern that, should Julian Assange be extradited from the UK, there would be a risk that he could be subject to the death penalty,” said identically-worded letters sent to and obtained by The Guardian. “Under UK law, a person’s extradition cannot be ordered if the person concerned will be subject to the death penalty.”

Dated on 7 March and 10 August 2018, they said that if the home secretary accepts an assurance against capital punishment as adequate, the “person concerned may also seek leave to appeal to the High Court, which will examine the assurance given”.

The government has not demanded assurances against the death penalty in other cases, including two alleged Isis “Beatles” militants from the UK last year.

The home secretary handed the US information on Alexander Kotey and Shafee El-Sheikh for a federal prosecution last June, after they were caught by Kurdish forces in Syria.

Lawyers representing El-Sheikh’s mother accused home secretary Sajid Javid of giving up on death penalty assurances because of “anticipated outrage” from Donald Trump’s administration.

But the High Court found the decision was legal, ruling that there was “no general, common law duty on HM government to take positive steps to protect an individual's life from the actions of a third party”.

The letters on Assange were sent before the WikiLeaks founder was stripped of his political asylum and Ecuadorian nationality.

The country’s ambassador formally invited London's Metropolitan Police to remove Assange from its London embassy last week.

Mr Moreno said “the patience of Ecuador has reached its limit on the behaviour of Mr Assange”, but his lawyers denied “outrageous” allegations regarding his personal hygiene including that he had smeared faeces on the embassy walls.

“The discourteous and aggressive behaviour of Julian Assange, the hostile and threatening declaration of its allied organisation [WikiLeaks] against Ecuador, and especially the transgression of international treaties, have led the situation to a point where the asylum of Mr Assange is unsustainable and no longer viable,” Mr Moreno added.

“In all cases, the relevant judicial authorities have validated Ecuador's position. In line with our strong commitment to human rights and international law, I requested Great Britain to guarantee that Mr Assange would not be extradited to a country where he could face torture or the death penalty. The British government has confirmed it in writing, in accordance with its own rules.”

Assange had been living at the Ecuadorian embassy for almost seven years, after losing a court battle against extradition to Sweden over rape allegations.

That investigation was dropped in 2017 but the British police warrant for skipping bail remained, and was the reason initially cited for arresting Assange.

After arriving at a London police station, he was re-arrested under a US extradition warrant.

The US Department of Justice said he had been with one count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion with Chelsea Manning, over the military leaks that exposed war crimes in 2010.

Assange faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison if convicted, though he may yet be charged with other offences.

His lawyer, Jennifer Robinson, said the charge “sets a dangerous precedent for all media organisations and journalists in Europe and around the world”.

Assange also faces jail for breaching bail by fleeing to the Ecuadorian embassy in 2012, and could be remanded in British custody for the duration of his legal battle against extradition.