Assange appears in UK court as battle over US extradition offer resumes

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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange appeared in a London court on Monday to fight a US extradition request, in a high-stakes hearing that has been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.Assange, who spent nearly a year and a half in a British prison, sat on the dock in Old Bailey Criminal Court and officially denied the US extradition request to stand trial on espionage charges. He wore a dark suit, a white shirt and a brown tie, with glasses perched on his cropped white hair.

Several dozen supporters, including fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and Assange’s partner Stella Morris, gathered outside the courthouse, chanting, beating drums and calling his lawsuits a threat to press freedom.

“Julian Assange is the trigger; it sheds light on all the corruption in the world, ”Westwood said.

Ahead of the hearing, supporters attempted to petition British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, calling on the government to deny Washington’s extradition request.

Julian Assange’s father John Shipton and Assange’s girlfriend Stella Morris greet each other outside Old Bailey Criminal Court in London on Monday. (Frank Augstein / The Associated Press)

Morris arrived at the gates of 10 Downing Street but was not allowed to enter. Morris, accompanied by a representative of the organization Reporters Without Borders, said she would publish the document instead.

“I am fighting for his life. He will not survive if he is extradited, ”she said.

US prosecutors have indicted the 49-year-old Australian on 18 charges of espionage and computer misuse following Wikileaks’ publication of secret US military documents ten years ago. The charges carry a maximum penalty of 175 years in prison.

US authorities claim Assange conspired with US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to hack Pentagon computer and release hundreds of thousands of secret diplomatic cables and military files on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan .

A supporter of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange takes part in a protest outside the London courthouse. (Matt Dunham / The Associated Press)

In a new indictment filed in June, U.S. prosecutors also say he conspired with members of hacking organizations and sought to recruit hackers to provide WikiLeaks with classified information. This indictment broadened the US case against Assange but did not add new charges.

Lawyers for Assange say the lawsuits are a politically motivated abuse of power that will stifle press freedom and endanger journalists around the world.

They claim Assange is a journalist entitled to First Amendment protection and claim that the leaked documents revealed wrongdoing by the US military.

Among the files released by WikiLeaks was a video of an Apache helicopter attack in 2007 by US forces in Baghdad that killed 11 people, including two Reuters journalists.

“Journalists and whistleblowers who uncover illegal corporate or government activity and war crimes – such as the publications for which Julian has been charged – should be protected from prosecution,” the lawyer said. ‘Assange Jennifer Robinson before the hearing.

Assange’s legal troubles began in 2010, when he was arrested in London at the behest of Sweden, who wanted to question him about allegations of rape and sexual assault made by two women.

He refused to travel to Stockholm, saying he feared extradition or illegal rendition to the United States or to the American prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

In 2012, Assange sought refuge inside the Ecuadorian embassy, ​​where he was beyond the reach of British and Swedish authorities – but also effectively a prisoner, unable to leave the tiny diplomatic mission in the London area of ​​Knightsbridge.

The relationship between Assange and his hosts eventually deteriorated, and he was kicked out of the embassy in April 2019. British police immediately arrested him for relinquishing his bail in 2012.

Assange remains in high security prison

Sweden dropped sex crimes investigations in November 2019 because a lot of time had passed, but Assange remains in Belmarsh high security prison in London pending the extradition decision.

Supporters say the ordeal took a toll on Assange’s physical and mental health, leaving him with depression, dental problems and severe shoulder disease. The hearing should include expert psychiatric evidence about his mental state.

Journalism organizations and human rights groups have called on Britain to deny the extradition request. Amnesty International said Assange was “the target of a negative public campaign by US officials at the highest level”.

The extradition hearing opened in February but was suspended when the UK went into lockdown in March to slow the spread of the coronavirus. It resumes with physical distancing measures in courts and video feeds for journalists and observers to watch from a distance.

The case is expected to continue until early October. District Judge Vanessa Baraitser is expected to take weeks, if not months, to review her verdict, with the losing side likely to appeal.

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