London: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange appeared in a London court on Monday to fight a US extradition request, at a high-stakes hearing that was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Assange, who has spent almost a year and a half in a British prison, sat in the dock at the Old Bailey criminal court and formally refused the U.S. demand he be extradited to face trial on espionage charges. He wore a dark suit, white shirt and maroon tie, with glasses perched atop his neatly trimmed white hair.
Several dozen supporters, including fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and Assange's partner, Stella Moris, gathered outside the courthouse, chanting, banging drums and calling his prosecution a threat to press freedom.
“Julian Assange is the trigger, he is shining the light on all the corruption in the world," Westwood said.
American prosecutors have indicted the 49-year-old Australian on 18 espionage and computer misuse charges over Wikileaks' publication of secret US military documents a decade ago. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison.
American authorities allege that Assange conspired with US army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to hack into a Pentagon computer and release hundreds of thousands of secret diplomatic cables and military files on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In a new indictment filed in June, US prosecutors also allege he conspired with members of hacking organisations and sought to recruit hackers to provide WikiLeaks with classified information. That indictment expanded the US case against Assange but did not add any new charges.
Assange's lawyers say the prosecution is a politically motivated abuse of power that will stifle press freedom and put journalists around the world at risk.
They argue that Assange is a journalist entitled to First Amendment protection, and say the leaked documents exposed US military wrongdoing.
Among the files released by WikiLeaks was video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack by American forces in Baghdad that killed 11 people, including two Reuters journalists.
“Journalists and whistle-blowers who reveal illegal activity by companies or governments and war crimes — such as the publications Julian has been charged for — should be protected from prosecution,” Assange attorney Jennifer Robinson said before the hearing.
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. He refused to go to Stockholm, saying he feared extradition or illegal rendition to the United States or the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In 2012, Assange sought refuge inside the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he was beyond the reach of U.K. and Swedish authorities — but also effectively a prisoner, unable to leave the tiny diplomatic mission in London's tony Knightsbridge area.
The relationship between Assange and his hosts eventually soured, and he was evicted from the embassy in April 2019. British police immediately arrested him for jumping bail in 2012.
Sweden dropped the sex crimes investigations in November 2019 because so much time had elapsed, but Assange remains in London's high-security Belmarsh Prison as he awaits the extradition decision.
Supporters say the ordeal has harmed Assange's physical and mental health, leaving him with depression, dental problems and a serious shoulder ailment. The hearing is expected to include expert psychiatric evidence about his mental state.
Journalism organisations and human rights groups have called on Britain to refuse the extradition request. Amnesty International said Assange was “the target of a negative public campaign by US officials at the highest levels.”
The extradition hearing opened in February but was put on hold when the UK went into lockdown in March to slow the spread of the coronavirus. It is resuming with social distancing measures in court and video feeds so that journalists and observers can watch remotely.
The case is due to run until early October. District Judge Vanessa Baraitser is expected to take weeks or even months to consider her verdict, with the losing side likely to appeal.