LONDON - Julian Assange's extradition to the United States was approved Friday by the British government, a crucial step towards the WikiLeaks founder facing trial on espionage charges.
The extradition order for Assange was signed by the U.K. Home Office, giving him 14 days to appeal the decision.
The founder of WikiLeaks has been fighting a long legal battle to avoid being sent to the US 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.
The U.K. courts have not found that it would be unfair, unjust or an abuse of process to extradite Mr Assange, the Home Office said. They did not find that extradition would be incompatible with his human rights. After a British court ruling in April that he could be sent to the U.S., a decision on whether to extradite Assange had been anticipated by British Home Secretary Priti Patel.
The founder of WikiLeaks denied any wrongdoing in connection with the release of thousands of secret U.S. files in 2010. Assange, 50, could face up to 175 years in prison if convicted.
On Friday, his family pledged to keep fighting for him.
Today is not the end of the fight. According to The Associated Press, it is only the beginning of a new legal battle, said Assange's wife Stella.
She said the decision of the U.K. government was a dark day for press freedom and British democracy. Julian did nothing wrong, she said. He has not committed a 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 previous decision against handing Assange over to the U.S. might have been different, given the assurances that he would not be held under highly restrictive conditions if he was extradited.
His family and legal team have 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 in order 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 that his family feared Assange would not survive extradition to the U.S.
"We live in fear that Julian will not survive," Shipton said. He has been crushed and you can see the toll it has taken on him over the years. After a 2007 airstrike in Baghdad that resulted in the deaths of two Reuters journalists and others, Assange and WikiLeaks came under the international spotlight.
The video, which was released under the title Collateral Murder, sparked widespread anger among Americans about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2010 WikiLeaks gained more attention after publishing a trove of classified defense documents on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as well as on detainees at Guantanamo Bay, an act that U.S. officials said put lives at risk.
The Obama administration did not immediately indict Assange. Under former President Donald Trump, he was charged with violating the Espionage Act.
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.