WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, minus beard, appears in London court

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in a courtroom sketch during a case management hearing at Westminster Magistrates Court in London on Oct 21, 2019.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in a courtroom sketch during a case management hearing at Westminster Magistrates Court in London on Oct 21, 2019.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (REUTERS) - WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange appeared in a London court on Monday (Oct 21) for a hearing on whether he should be extradited to the United States to face spying charges.

Assange, dressed in a navy suit and light blue jumper, raised his fist to supporters in the public gallery. He was cleanly shaven in contrast to the long beard he had grown while holed up in Ecuador's embassy.

Assange, 48, who spent seven years holed up in Ecuador’s embassy before he was dragged out in April, faces 18 counts in the United States including conspiring to hack government computers and violating an espionage law. He could spend decades in prison if convicted.

On Monday he appeared clean-shaven, without the long beard he had worn at his last public appearance in May, when he was sentenced to 50 weeks jail for skipping bail. He appeared in good health, with his white hair combed back and wearing a navy suit over a light blue sweater and white shirt. 

But he mumbled and stuttered for several seconds as he gave his name and date of birth at the start of a preliminary hearing in the case. When the judge asked him at the end of the hearing if he knew what was happening, he replied “not exactly”, complained about the conditions in jail, and said he was unable to “think properly”. 

“I don’t understand how this is equitable,” he said. “I can’t research anything, I can’t access any of my writing. It’s very difficult where I am.”

Assange is being held in British jail pending the US extradition, having served his sentence for skipping bail. He says the US charges against him are a political attempt to silence journalists and publishers, and the Swedish allegations were part of a plot to catch him. Sweden is reviewing the sex crimes cases

The former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone was among Assange’s supporters in the public gallery, while protesters gathered outside court.  Assange’s lawyer Mark Summers argued that Assange’s extradition hearing, scheduled for February 2020, should be delayed by three months due to the complexity of the case. 

“The evidence in this case would test the limits of most lawyers,” Summers told the court. He cited the difficulty of communicating with Assange who he said doesn’t have a computer in prison.

The judge denied the request to delay the hearing.  Australian-born Assange made international headlines in early 2010 when WikiLeaks published a classified US military video showing a 2007 attack by Apache helicopters in Baghdad that killed a dozen people, including two Reuters news staff.  WikiLeaks later angered the United States by publishing caches of leaked military documents and diplomatic cables. 

 
 
 
 

Admirers have hailed Assange as a hero for exposing what they describe as abuse of power by modern states and for championing free speech.

As he entered the dock, people in the public gallery raised their fists in solidarity with him.  His detractors have painted him as a dangerous figure complicit in Russian efforts to undermine the West.

His detractors have painted him as a dangerous figure complicit in Russian efforts to undermine the West and US security, and dispute that he is a journalist.

WikiLeaks angered Washington by publishing hundreds of thousands of secret US diplomatic cables that laid bare critical US appraisals of world leaders, from Russian President Vladimir Putin to members of the Saudi royal family.

In 2012, he took refuge in Ecuador’s London embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden where he was accused of sex crimes which he denied, saying he believed he would ultimately be sent on to the United Sates.

He was dragged from the embassy in April after seven years and given a 50-week jail term for skipping bail. That sentence was completed but he remains in prison while his extradition case continues.