LONDON (AP) — Lawyers for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and the U.S. government were squaring off in a London court on Monday at a high-stakes extradition case delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
American prosecutors have indicted the 49-year-old Australian on 18 espionage and computer misuse charges over Wikileaks’ publication of secret U.S. military documents a decade ago. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison.
American authorities allege that Assange conspired with U.S. army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to hack into a Pentagon computer and release hundreds of thousands of secret diplomatic cables and military files on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They also say he conspired with members of hacking organizations and sought to recruit hackers to provide WikiLeaks with classified information.
Assange’s lawyers say the prosecution is a politically motivated abuse of power that will stifle press freedom and put journalists around the world at risk.
They argue that Assange is a journalist entitled to First Amendment protection, and say the leaked documents exposed U.S. military wrongdoing. Among the files released by WikiLeaks was video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack by American forces in Baghdad that killed 11 people, including two Reuters journalists.
“Journalists and whistle-blowers who reveal illegal activity by companies or governments and war crimes — such as the publications Julian has been charged for — should be protected from prosecution,” said Assange attorney Jennifer Robinson.
Several dozen Assange supporters, including fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and Assange’s partner Stella Moris, gathered outside the Old Bailey courthouse on Monday morning. The WikiLeaks founder was due to be brought from Belmarsh Prison on the outskirts of London to court for the hearing.
Journalism organizations and human rights groups have called on Britain to refuse the extradition request. Amnesty International said Assange was “the target of a negative public campaign by U.S. officials at the highest levels.”
The case is due to run until early October. District Judge Vanessa Baraitser is expected to take weeks or even months to consider her verdict, with the losing side likely to appeal.