After a months-long hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, British justice resumed yesterday the hearing to consider the US request for the extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The 49-year-old Australian is accused by the American authorities of espionage, as since 2010 he has published more than 700,000 classified and confidential documents related to the activities of the American army. He faces a maximum sentence of up to 175 years in prison.
Assange appeared in Old Bailey, the building that houses London’s central courts, facing a new Justice Department indictment issued in June that expands on previous espionage charges. Asked if he was willing to give his consent for his extradition to the United States, Assange replied abruptly “no.”
Meanwhile, before the start of the hearing, which is expected to last up to four weeks, Assange supporters gathered outside the court to protest the extradition, calling the prosecution of the WikiLeaks founder a threat to his freedom. “His extradition to the United States is tantamount to the death penalty,” said Assange’s lawyer and partner, Stella Morris.
After seven years in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, the founder of WikiLeaks was arrested by the metropolitan police in April 2019. Since then, Assange remains in custody in the HM Prison Belmarsh, located in the British capital. In fact, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Niels Melzer, has terminated his detention, and in March his lawyers requested his conditional release, citing his state of health and the COVID-19 pandemic, which, however, was rejected.
U.S. officials say Assange collaborated with former U.S. military analyst Chelsea Manning to hack into a Pentagon computer and publish hundreds of thousands of secret diplomatic files on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The June indictment added allegations that the founder of WikiLeaks conspired with members of cyber-piracy organizations and tried to hack hackers to provide WikiLeaks with classified information.
Assange’s defense lawyer, Mark Summers, accused U.S. prosecutors of filing a new indictment because they were “in despair” because they “knew they would lose” their existing case. The 49-year-old Australian team of lawyers argues that the prosecution is an abuse of power motivated by political motives, violates the freedom of the press and endangers journalists around the world.