WikiLeaks’ Assange to fight US extradition bid in UK court

U.S. Court News


WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is set to fight for his freedom in a British court after a decade of legal drama, as he challenges American authorities’ attempt to extradite him on spying charges over the site’s publication of secret U.S. military documents. Lawyers for Assange and the U.S. government are scheduled to face off in London Monday at an extradition hearing that was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.

American prosecutors have indicted the 49-year-old Australian on 18 espionage and computer misuse charges adding up to a maximum sentence of 175 years. His lawyers say the prosecution is a politically motivated abuse of power that will stifle press freedom and put journalists at risk.

Assange attorney Jennifer Robinson said the case “is fundamentally about basic human rights and freedom of speech.” “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,” she said.

American prosecutors say Assange is a criminal, not a free-speech hero. They allege that Assange conspired with U.S. 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. They also say he conspired with members of hacking organizations and sought to recruit hackers to provide WikiLeaks with classified information.

“By disseminating the materials in an unredacted form, he likely put people -- human rights activists, journalists, advocates, religious leaders, dissidents and their families -- at risk of serious harm, torture or even death,” James Lewis, a British lawyer acting for the U.S. government, told a hearing in February.

Assange argues he is a journalist entitled to First Amendment protection, and says the leaked documents exposed U.S. 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.

His lawyers argue the prosecution is an abuse of process by a Trump administration that wants to make an example of Assange. They say he would be held in inhuman conditions and would not get a fair trial in the United States.

Journalism organizations 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 U.S. officials at the highest levels.”

“If Julian Assange is prosecuted it could have a chilling effect on media freedom, leading publishers and journalists to self-censor in fear of retaliation,” said Amnesty’s Europe Director, Nils Mui?nieks.

The four-week extradition hearing is part of a twisting saga rife with competing claims of hacking, spying and subterfuge. Assange’s lawyers claim the U.S. intelligence services directed a private security firm to spy on him while he was living in Ecuador’s London embassy -- a case currently being heard in a Spanish court.

Assange also alleges he was offered a pardon by the Trump administration if he agreed to say Russia wasn’t involved in leaking Democratic National Committee emails that were published by WikiLeaks during the 2016 U.S. election campaign. The White House denies that claim.

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.

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