WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange fights extradition to the U.S. in top London court

Key Points
  • WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is in court in London this week to fight his extradition to the U.S..
  • He is wanted by the U.S. Department of Justice over the publication of classified documents.
  • Assange and his lawyers failed to delay the hearing Monday.  

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, one of the world's most high-profile whistleblowers, will fight his extradition to the U.S. this week, after failing to delay the hearing on Monday. 

Assange is wanted in the U.S. over the publication of hundreds of thousands of classified documents in 2010 and 2011.

The hearing, at London's Old Bailey, is being heard by District Judge Vanessa Baraitser. It began in February but it was pushed back as a result of the coronavirus.

The U.S. Justice Department issued a new indictment in June alleging that Assange conspired with members of hacking organizations and tried to recruit hackers at conferences in Europe and Asia who could provide WikiLeaks with classified information. 

Assange's lawyer, Edward Fitzgerald QC, argued Monday that the latest indictment arrived too late for his team to review and respond to it properly. James Lewis QC will represent the U.S. authorities.

Fitzgerald said he had not seen Assange face-to-face for six months, partly due to the pandemic, according to the BBC. However, a bid to rule out the new charges was unsuccessful, with Baraitser ruling they must be heard. 

Assange, whose health has deteriorated while being held in a U.K. prison, is wanted on 18 charges, 17 of which fall under the U.S. Espionage Act.

The U.S. will specifically accuse him of conspiring with army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to decipher a password known as "hash" in order to access a classified U.S. Department of Defense computer and expose military secrets. 

Speaking from a glass box on Monday, Assange said he does not consent to extradition. 

If the 49-year-old Australian is extradited to the U.S., he could face a prison sentence of 175 years. His mother Christine Assange said on Twitter that he won't survive if he is extradited.

Assange's supporters argue that the U.S. is targeting him for political reasons after his journalism exposed alleged war crimes and human rights abuses.

The hearing is due to last four weeks. Dozens of witnesses are expected to be called to give evidence and a final verdict will be delivered at a later date.

There are a limited number of seats available in the court due to social distancing measures that have been introduced in response to the pandemic.

Assange supporters, including father John Shipton and fashion designer Dame Vivienne Westwood, gathered outside the historic criminal court Monday to protest his extradition.

"Julian is a publisher … and a journalist," Shipton said outside the court on Monday. "It's an oppression of journalism and free press everywhere in the Western world. It can't go on, it has to stop now."

Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary for the National Union of Journalists in the U.K. and Ireland, said in a statement: "If this extradition is allowed, it will send a clear signal that journalists and publishers are at risk whenever their work discomforts the United States government. Media freedom the world over will take a significant backward step if Assange is forced to face these charges at the behest of a U.S. president."

She continued: "The U.K. government makes much of its commitment to free expression – this case is its opportunity to demonstrate the substance behind those warm words."

Locked up in Belmarsh

Assange, a father of two young children, was arrested at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in April 2019 for breaching his bail conditions and has been held at the high-security Belmarsh Prison in southeast London since. 

Assange's partner, Stella Moris, is one of those expected to appear in court. The South African-born lawyer told PA Media that her partner has lost a lot of weight in prison and that his health is deteriorating.

"This is an attack on journalism," she said. "If he is extradited to the U.S. for publishing inconvenient truths about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, then it will set a precedent, and any British journalist or publisher could also be extradited in the future."

Moris launched a crowdfunding campaign last month to pay for Assange's legal fees. Over £100,000 ($131,000) has been pledged.