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Editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, Kristinn Hrafnssonon from Iceland, left, and father of Julian Assange, John Shipton, speak to the media in London on Sept. 7, 2020.

Frank Augstein/The Associated Press

After months of delays and legal wrangling, a British judge has finally begun hearing arguments on whether WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should be extradited to the United States to face a series of criminal charges, including publishing state secrets.

Mr. Assange watched calmly from behind a glass partition as proceedings began in a London courtroom on Monday. Outside in the street, a few dozen supporters held a small rally and shouted, “Free Assange,” while drummers banged out a persistent beat.

“The malice that constantly falls like a Niagara upon Julian is just appalling and indicates to us that the administration of justice here is enfeebled,” Mr. Assange’s father, John Shipton, told the crowd.

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The extradition hearing had been delayed since March because of the COVID-19 pandemic. British courts are still following strict protocols, which limit public access and force judges to rely on video links for some testimony. Monday’s proceedings were interrupted repeatedly because of technological problems, and the first witness, U.S.-based journalism professor Mark Feldstein, had to be postponed because he couldn’t connect to the court’s video system.

Mr. Assange, 49, faces decades in prison for allegedly violating the U.S. Espionage Act by “unlawfully obtaining and disclosing classified documents related to the national defence.” The charges stem from the publication of thousands of military files by WikiLeaks in 2010, including reports of atrocities by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

His lawyers argued there were no grounds for extradition because the case against Mr. Assange was politically motivated. No other journalist has ever been prosecuted in the United States for publishing classified material, they added, and these charges have been driven by U.S. President Donald Trump, who has been openly hostile to the media.

Mr. Assange “was an obvious symbol of all that Trump condemned, having brought American war crimes to the attention of the world,” the lawyers said in court filings.

“What’s at stake here is basically the future of journalism,” WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson told The Globe and Mail outside the court on Monday. “It’s totally unacceptable that a journalist is now on trial, they are calling it espionage. If this goes ahead and he is extradited, I am absolutely certain he will not be the last.”

Lawyers for the U.S. government insisted that Mr. Assange was not a journalist and that the Department of Justice didn’t target journalists for their reporting. Instead, they argued, the charges against Mr. Assange related to recruiting hackers to illegally access Department of Defense computers and publishing information that disclosed the names of confidential intelligence sources.

“At its most simple, journalists do not conspire to steal, burgle, corrupt or computer hack … in order to obtain classified materials, nor do they publish the names of innocent sources,” the lawyers said in submissions. “If they do, they are liable to prosecution.”

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Mr. Assange has long feared extradition to the United States, and in 2012 he sought refuge in the Ecuadoran embassy in London, in part, to escape being handed over American prosecutors. He was also facing sexual assault charges in Sweden at the time. Those charges were later dropped.

In April, 2019, Ecuador President Lenin Moreno, who was elected two years earlier, revoked Mr. Assange’s diplomatic protection. British police then arrested Mr. Assange. He was jailed for 50 weeks for breaching bail conditions relating to the Swedish charges and he has remained in a London prison while awaiting extradition.

His supporters have waged an active campaign for his release and his legal team is expected to call several high-profile witnesses, such as author and political activist Noam Chomsky and Daniel Ellsberg, a former military strategist who leaked thousands of pages of classified Department of Defense documents known as the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

Lawyers for U.S. prosecutors are expected to zero in on allegations that Mr. Assange aided and abetted Chelsea Manning, a U.S. Army intelligence analyst who was sentenced to 35 years in jail in 2013 for leaking hundreds of thousands of military documents. Former president Barack Obama commuted her sentence in January, 2017, and she was later released from prison.

Prosecutors allege Mr. Assange encouraged Ms. Manning to steal classified documents and hand them to WikiLeaks. He also allegedly helped Ms. Manning to try and crack a password that would have led to even more sensitive material.

Mr. Assange’s lawyers will also raise his physical and mental health as an issue during the hearing. His legal team has filed reports from several doctors showing that he suffers from severe depression. One doctor, Michael Kopelman, said in court submissions that Mr. Assange “thinks of suicide hundreds of times a day.”

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His fiancée, Stella Moris, has also expressed concern about his condition. Ms. Moris said she hadn’t been allowed to visit him for months because of the pandemic but she finally saw him a couple of weeks ago. “He looked a lot thinner than on my last visit. He was in a lot of pain and his health is not good,” she said in a statement Monday.

The extradition hearing is expected to last for at least three weeks and the outcome is almost certain to be appealed. Mr. Assange’s supporters noted that the presiding judge, Vanessa Baraitser, has ordered extradition in 96 per cent of the cases she has adjudicated.

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