The prolonged criminal case against Julian Assange will take a new twist on Monday when a British judge decides whether the WikiLeaks founder should be extradited to the United States to face trial.
Mr. Assange faces up to 175 years in prison in the U.S. for allegedly hacking into government computers and violating the Espionage Act by “unlawfully obtaining and disclosing classified documents related to the national defence.” The charges stem from publication of thousands of secret military files by WikiLeaks in 2010 and 2011, including reports of atrocities by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
U.S. prosecutors have filed an 18-count indictment against Mr. Assange, who is being held in a prison in London, and they’ve applied to a British court for his extradition. District Judge Vanessa Baraitser will rule on the request on Monday and if she consents, then it would be up to Home Secretary Priti Patel to hand him over.
Mr. Assange’s supporters have argued that he acted as a journalist when he published the material and that he served the public interest in exposing wrongdoing by the U.S. military. They say the case against him is an attack on press freedom and that this is the first time a journalist has been charged for violating the Espionage Act, which dates back to the First World War.
“The mere fact that this case has made it to court, let alone gone on this long, is an historic, large-scale attack on freedom of speech,” Wikileaks editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson said in a statement on Sunday. “This is a fight that affects each and every person’s right to know and is being fought collectively.”
During the extradition hearing, Mr. Assange’s lawyers also argued that it was impossible for him to get a fair trial in the U.S. because President Donald Trump and other senior officials have repeatedly condemned WikiLeaks and Mr. Assange. “If you removed the words ‘United States’ and inserted ‘Russia’ [in the indictment], the courts would have no problem in dismissing this case for political interference,” Mr. Assange’s lawyer, Jennifer Robinson, told reporters at the end of the extradition hearing in October.
British lawyers representing the U.S. Department of Justice, or DOJ, have insisted that Mr. Assange was not facing prosecution for being a journalist or for publishing leaked information. They argued during the hearing that his crimes centred on helping former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning hack into U.S. Department of Defence computers to obtain the documents. Ms. Manning received a 35-year sentence in 2013 for violating the Espionage Act, but the jail term was commuted in January, 2017, by then-president Barack Obama.
“The indictment does not charge the defendant with passively receiving classified information or publishing stolen material which he received unsolicited,” lawyers for the DOJ argued in court filings. “Rather, the charges reflect Assange’s complicity in Manning’s theft and unlawful disclosure.”
The filing added that the charges also related to the publication of the identities of government sources that put their lives in danger.
The case against Mr. Assange has drawn international attention and he has won widespread support from human rights groups, politicians and media organizations.
Last week a group of five Nobel Prize winners – Northern Irish peace activist Mairead Maguire, human rights activist Adolfo Perez Esquivel, feminist campaigner Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Iranian political activist Shirin Ebadi and Austrian novelist Peter Handke – sent a letter to Mr. Trump urging him to pardon Mr. Assange. “Assange has fought for truth and justice,” the letter said. “His work with WikiLeaks has pioneered accountability in the media and exposed corruption, civil liberties violations in the United States and around the world, and the true cost of war.”
Mr. Assange has long feared extradition to the U.S. over the WikiLeaks disclosures. He sought refuge in the Ecuadoran embassy in London in 2012 after a British court upheld his extradition to Sweden on sexual assault charges. Mr. Assange denied the allegations and was convinced that the Swedes would eventually turn him over to U.S. prosecutors.
Ecuador withdrew its asylum in April, 2019, and Mr. Assange was arrested by British police for skipping bail on the Swedish charges. The sexual assault case was later dropped and Mr. Assange was sentenced to 50 weeks in Britain for violating bail conditions. He was denied bail on the U.S. charges and has remained in prison.
His family and lawyers have expressed some hope that president-elect Joe Biden could drop the case since he served as vice-president under Mr. Obama. They’ve noted Mr. Obama’s pardon for Ms. Manning and comments by former DOJ official Matthew Miller, who told The Washington Post in 2013 that the administration was reluctant to prosecute Mr. Assange.
However, lawyers for the DOJ told the extradition hearing that the criminal investigation had not finished in 2013 and Mr. Miller was not involved in the indictment, which was filed in 2019.
Whatever the judge rules on Monday, the decision is expected to be appealed, which could take years.
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