Hundreds gathered outside a London court today to protest at the first day of the extradition hearing of Julian Assange, with their chants of “Free Assange,” fully audible inside the hearing room.
The United States Government is demanding that the Wikileaks founder be sent to Virginia to stand trial for conspiring to gather classified information, revealing the names of confidential informers and conspiring with former soldier Chelsea Manning to break a secret password.
As Assange sat impassively in the glass-fronted dock, James Lewis QC, representing the US government told the court that extradition was being sought for “conspiracy to steal and hack into a Department of Defence computer system,” adding that, “ This is a crime, and reporting is not an excuse for criminality.”
He continued by arguing that the release by Wikileaks of uncensored US diplomatic cables had put at-risk people who had provided US intelligence with information during military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that revealing the locations of “sensitive US military sites,” could have hindered the “fight against terrorism.”
Lewis then told the court “ it is not for the US government to show there was any actual harm,” to confidential sources before also alleging that documents from Wikileaks were found at the home of the founder of Al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden when it was raided by American troops in 2011.
Lewis then told the presiding judge, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser, that he wanted to address what he described as the defence “hyperbole” that the WikiLeaks founder could be sentenced to up to 175 years in prison in the US
“Sentencing is a function of the trial court not the function of the charging authority. Indeed, the equivalent offence in the UK would carry the equivalent sentence,” he added stating that the average jail term for similar offences in the US was between 40 and 60 months.
He also argued that the court had no jurisdiction to even consider the “abuse of process,” submissions that we expect to be made by Assange’s defence team later in the case. Lewis also told the court that despite the WikiLeaks founder not being a US citizen, he can be prosecuted under American security laws for “aiding and abetting” a US citizen in doing so, in this case, “conspiring,” with former US intelligence officer Chelsea Manning.
Asked by the judge if they accepted this, Edward Fitzgerald QC for the Defence rose to say the extradition offence is not valid as journalistic activity is protected under article 10 of the European Human Rights Act. The prosecution pointed on to the UK 1989 Official Secrets Act, which was passed after a civil servant, Clive Ponting, was acquitted of an offence after arguing the public had a right to know about the sinking of an Argentinian warship, the General Belgrano in 1981. The new act removed any “public interest” defence in revealing security or intelligence matters.
The QC said that that as there is no public interest defence in the Official Secrets Act if a newspaper published official secrets they are guilty of an offence no matter what the purpose. The European Human Rights Act “does not apply,” he said, adding “Otherwise could just publish what you wanted.”
The US government is expected to conclude their opening remarks later today, with the defence then presenting its opening statement.
The case continues
While this morning belonged to the US government to put its an argument for the extradition of Julian Assange, this afternoon belonged to the defence, as Edward Fitzgerald QC put the case for him not to be sent to the USA to face trial on espionage and computer misuse charges.
The grey-haired defence barrister told the court that the charges against Assange were not about criminal justice, but were “due to underlying political motives of the US government.”
He said that he would produce evidence that Fitzgerald says that US President Donald Trump met with FBI Director James Comey and told him he wanted a “head on a pike,” to discourage leakers and whistleblowers. “This is the real motive for this prosecution,” he said, adding, “Julian Assange has been made an example of.”
He continued: “This prosecution is not because of any new facts, it was because it was politically expedient. He also noted that recent comments by senior US administration figures have, in his opinion, seriously prejudiced Assange’s right to a fair trial.
Fitzgerald then told the court that he had a witness that would confirm a US Congressman, and ally of President Trump, Dana Rohrabacher, had offered Assange a full pardon on all charges if he would only say that the Russsian government was not involved in the leak of documents to Wikileaks during the 2016 election.
This, counsel said, was “political extortion, threatening Assange with years in prison if he would not do Trump a political favour.” Fitzgerald also said he would be presenting evidence that says US intelligence was spying on Assange while he was in the Ecuadorian embassy, including filming and recording discussions with his legal team. He added that a witness would be testifying that ““more extreme measures,” to deal with Assange were discussed, including “kidnapping and poisoning.”
Summing up, the defence barrister said of Assange: “He is anti-war, anti-imperialist, for free speech and an open society. Those beliefs inevitably bring him into conflict with powerful states, and have led to him being called a ‘terrorist.” He said that there was no evidence anyone was damaged or hurt due to the Wikileaks releases, concluding:
“Julian Assange faces life in prison for publishing true information that was in the public interest..if truth becomes treason we are all in trouble.”