June 13 (UPI) -- WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will receive an extradition hearing after Britain's chief immigration official signed an order that could ultimately send him to face charges in the United States.
British Home Secretary Sajid Javid said Thursday he signed the request. Assange faces 18 U.S. charges, including soliciting and publishing classified information. He's wanted in connection to leaked documents by whistle-blower and former intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning.
The order precedes an extradition hearing for Assange Friday. The 47-year-old Australian has been in British custody since April.
"He's rightly behind bars," Javid told BBC Radio 4's Today show.
"I want to see justice done at all times and we've got a legitimate extradition request, so I've signed it, but the final decision is now with the courts."
Because Assange was too sick to appear at his last hearing, the next may be held at Belmarsh prison, where he's being held on a 50-week sentence for skipping bail. Assange spent seven years living at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, under political asylum that shielded him from U.S. and Swedish prosecution on varying charges. Assange faces rape allegations in Sweden, which were dropped years ago but reintroduced after his arrest.
A journalists union in his native Australia has called on the government to defend Assange.
"Assange faces up to 170 years in prison and his extradition sets a dangerous global precedent for the suppression of press freedom," the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance said in a statement.
"The U.S. Department of Justice charges against Assange relating to the alleged violation of the Espionage Act contain a real threat to press freedom for journalists and media outlets around the world," it added. "The extradition of Assange and prosecution by the United States for what are widely considered to be acts of journalism would set a disturbing global precedent for the suppression of press freedom."