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WikiLeaks founder Assange faces his last legal roll of the dice in Britain to avoid US extradition

Feb 20, 2024, 6:22 AM | Updated: 6:23 am

Demonstrators hold banners outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024. W...

Demonstrators hold banners outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will make his final appeal against his impending extradition to the United States at the court. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

LONDON (AP) — Julian Assange’s lawyers began their final U.K. legal challenge Tuesday to stop the WikiLeaks founder from being sent to the United States to face spying charges, arguing that his actions had exposed serious criminal acts by U.S. authorities and that he could face a “flagrant denial of justice” if he is extradited.

Assange himself was not in court. Judge Victoria Sharp said he was granted permission to come from Belmarsh Prison, where he has been held for five years, but had chosen not to attend. Assange’s lead lawyer, Edward Fitzgerald, said the 52-year-old Australian was unwell but did not elaborate on his health.

Assange has been fighting extradition for more than a decade, including seven years in self-exile in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and the last five years in the high-security prison on the outskirts of the British capital.

He has been indicted on 17 charges of espionage and one charge of computer misuse over his website’s publication of classified U.S. documents. American prosecutors say Assange helped U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning steal diplomatic cables and military files that WikiLeaks later published, putting lives at risk.

To his supporters, Assange is a secrecy-busting journalist who exposed U.S. military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan. They argue that the prosecution is politically motivated and he won’t get a fair trial in the U.S.

Hundreds of supporters holding “Free Julian Assange” signs and chanting “there is only one decision – no extradition” held a noisy protest outside the ne-Gothic High Court in London, where Assange’s attorneys are asking judges to grant a new appeal hearing, his last legal roll of the dice in Britain. Rallies were also held in cities around the world, including Brussels and Berlin.

“We don’t know what to expect, but you’re here because the world is watching,” Assange’s wife Stella Assange told the crowd. “They just cannot get away with this. Julian needs his freedom and we all need the truth.”

Stella Assange, who married the WikiLeans founder in prison in 2022 — said last week that his health has deteriorated during years of confinement and “if he’s extradited, he will die.”

If the judges rule against Assange, he can ask the European Court of Human Rights to block his extradition — though supporters worry he could be put on a plane to the U.S. before that happens, because the British government has already signed an extradition order.

“He is being prosecuted for engaging in ordinary journalistic practice of obtaining and publishing classified information, information that is both true and of obvious and important public interest,” his lawyer Fitzgerald said in court.

In written submissions, the lawyer said that “Julian Assange and WikiLeaks were responsible for the exposure of criminality on the part of the U.S. government on an unprecedented scale.”

Fitzgerald also said there is a risk Assange “will suffer a flagrant denial of justice” if sent to the U.S.

Assange’s lawyers say he could face up to 175 years in prison if convicted, though American authorities have said the sentence is likely to be much shorter than that.

While several of Assange’s arguments against extradition have already been rejected by British courts, his lawyers are trying to make new points to secure an appeal.

They say Assange is facing a political prosecution for exposing “pervasive criminality,” and that sending him across the Atlantic would breach the British-American extradition treaty.

“It is an abuse of process to seek extradition for a political offense,” Fitzgerald said.

Assange’s lawyers also want judges to reconsider allegations that the CIA and other U.S. officials developed plans to kidnap or kill Assange while he was in the Ecuadorian Embassy. A lower-court judge has dismissed the claims, but Assange attorney Mark Summers said Tuesday “there is compelling evidence now in existence that the plot was real.”

“There was a plot to kidnap Mr. Assange, to rendition him to America, or else straightforwardly murder him,” the lawyer claimed.

Assange’s lawyers also argue that WikiLeaks’ publication of thousands of classified documents was “protected by universally recognized and entrenched principles of free speech.”

James Lewis, a lawyer for the U.S., said Assange was being prosecuted “because he is alleged to have committed serious criminal offences.”

He argued in written submissions that Assange’s actions “threatened damage to the strategic and national security interests of the United States” and put individuals named in the documents — including Iraqis and Afghans who had helped the U.S. — at risk of “serious physical harm.”

Assange’s legal troubles began in 2010, when he was arrested in London at the request of Sweden, which wanted to question him about allegations of rape and sexual assault made by two women. In 2012, Assange jumped bail and sought refuge inside the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he was beyond the reach of the authorities — but was also effectively a prisoner in the tiny diplomatic mission.

The relationship between Assange and his hosts eventually soured, and he was evicted from the embassy in April 2019. British police immediately arrested him for breaching bail in 2012. Sweden dropped the sex crimes investigations in November 2019 because so much time had elapsed, but Assange has remained in prison throughout his extradition battle.

A U.K. district court judge rejected the U.S. extradition request in 2021 on the grounds that Assange was likely to kill himself if held under harsh U.S. prison conditions. Higher courts overturned that decision after getting assurances from the U.S. about his treatment. The British government signed an extradition order in June 2022.

Meanwhile, the Australian parliament last week called for Assange to be allowed to return to his homeland.

The judges, Sharp and Jeremy Johnson, could deliver a verdict at the end of the two-day hearing on Wednesday, but they’re more likely to take several weeks to consider their decision.

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WikiLeaks founder Assange faces his last legal roll of the dice in Britain to avoid US extradition