LONDON (AFP) - Julian Assange's full extradition hearing will begin in February, an English judge ruled Friday (June 14), with the WikiLeaks founder wanted in the United States on espionage charges.
Assange is accused of violating its Espionage Act by releasing a trove of classified military and diplomatic files in 2010 about US bombing campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, in a case that has upset defenders of press freedoms and human rights.
In his first court appearance since being sensationally dragged out of the Ecuadoran embassy in London in April, Assange told the court: “175 years of my life is effectively at stake.”
Speaking via video-link from the top-security Belmarsh prison in southeast London, and sporting a scraggly white beard, he added: “WikiLeaks is nothing but a publisher.” Washington submitted a formal extradition request to Britain after Quito terminated the 47-year-old Australian’s seven-year asylum stay.
He is currently serving a 50-week prison sentence for violating bail conditions by fleeing to the embassy in 2012 when he was wanted on accusations of sexual assault in Sweden.
England’s Chief Magistrate Emma Arbuthnot ordered a full extradition hearing to begin on February 25, expected to last for five days.
Mark Summers, Assange’s lawyer, told the court there were a “multiplicity of profound issues” concerning his extradition. “We say it represents an outrageous and full-frontal assault on journalistic rights,” he added.
Hostile intel service
WikiLeaks’ initial revelations about civilian casualties and embarrassing statements made by US officials about foreign leaders were published in coordination with newspapers such as The New York Times and The Guardian.
Those stories redacted the names and personal details of US operatives and local informants whose lives could have been endangered. But WikiLeaks found the arrangement too confining and published the entire load of unedited cables and video files – hundreds of thousands in all – on its website.
“WikiLeaks walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said two days after Assange’s arrest in April. “It is time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is: a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia,” he said.
Assange could be sentenced to 175 years in jail if convicted on all charges.
Assange entered the Ecuadoran embassy in 2012, fleeing what he claimed was a politically-motivated case against him in Sweden. A Swedish court last week rejected a request to detain Assange on those charges – a ruling that eases the way for Britain to hand him over to the United States.
Assange’s legal team and major US newspapers argue that his prosecution could shatter free speech rights and set a dangerous precedent. The editorial board of The New York Times wrote in May that Assange’s indictment “could have a chilling effect on American journalism.”
“The new charges focus on receiving and publishing classified material from a government source. That is something journalists do all the time,” The New York Times said.
The Wall Street Journal – a traditionally conservative supporter of the Republican Party – said US authorities had a legitimate case. But it added that the “danger, in the Assange case, is that it becomes a precedent for governments on the right or left to prosecute journalists they don’t like for reporting secrets”. It urged Congress to limit the scope of the Espionage Act so that it could specifically target “bad actors” such as Assange.
Human rights groups fear that US authorities want to either put Assange behind bars for life or sentence him to death.
“The UK must comply with the commitment already made that he would not be sent anywhere he could face torture, ill-treatment or the death penalty,” Amnesty International said on Thursday.
And WikiLeaks lawyer Christophe Marchand accused US authorities of seeking “revenge”. The case could last months longer after next February’s hearing, as there are multiple opportunities for appeal.