Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is pictured speaking to reporters in London in 2017. His legal efforts to avoid extradition to the United States suffered a setback Monday. File Photo by Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA-EFE
March 14 (UPI) -- The possibility of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange facing trial on espionage charges in the United States increased Monday when a top British court refused to hear his extradition appeal.
A three-judge panel of Britain's Supreme Court ruled that Assange's appeal of a December High Court decision allowing his extradition to the United States did not "raise an arguable point of law," his attorneys said.
Assange's defense team had argued that if extradited, he would face cruel treatment and possibly torture within the American penal system, but the High Court found there was no reason not to believe assurances from U.S. authorities that Assange will be treated humanely once he is in correctional custody.
The Supreme Court declined to hear Assange's appeal of that decision despite the "troubling circumstances in which Requesting States can provide caveated guarantees after the conclusion of a full evidential hearing," the Birnberg Peirce law firm said.
"In Mr. Assange's case, the Court had found that there was a real risk of prohibited treatment in the event of his onward extradition," they asserted.
The case now moves back to Westminster Magistrates' Court for possible referral to British Home Secretary Priti Patel, who would then decide whether to order or refuse extradition to the United States.
Once the referral is made, the defense is entitled to make submissions to Patel over the following four weeks before any decision becomes final.
Assange, 50, is wanted in the United States for publishing classified military documents and diplomatic cables in 2010 and 2011 and faces more than a dozen criminal counts that could put him behind bars for the rest of his life.
Legal experts have said, however, that it's likely that he would serve only a few years, if convicted.
The classified materials related to the U.S. military's campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning was convicted and sentenced to 35 years in prison in connection with the case, but she was released in 2017 after outgoing President Barack Obama commuted her sentence to seven years.
"Today's decision is a blow to Julian Assange and to justice," the human rights group Amnesty International said.
"The Supreme Court has missed an opportunity to clarify the U.K.'s acceptance of deeply flawed diplomatic assurances against torture," the group said in a statement. "Such assurances are inherently unreliable and leave people at risk of severe abuse upon extradition or other transfer."
The decision is also "bad news for press freedom," Amnesty said, calling it "a dangerous precedent" aimed at chilling the publication of classified information in the public interest.