The week-long extradition hearing of persecuted media whistleblower Julian Assange at Woolwich Crown Court in southeast London ended last Friday, February 28, 2020. The legal proceeding that will decide whether the United Kingdom will hand over the Wikileaks editor to the United States where he faces criminal counts is scheduled to resume on May 18.
The U.S. Justice Department claims that Assange broke the law when he published the names of classified sources. He was also charged with conspiring with former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to access classified password-protected information.
On July 25, 2010, Wikileaks leaked hundreds of thousands of U.S. military logs about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq uncovered by Manning’s computer hacking:
“The logs consist of over 91,000 Afghan War documents, covering the period between January 2004 and December 2009. Most of the documents are classified secret.”
Manning was arrested in May 2010 and convicted on espionage charges by court-martial in 2013 for his part in the 2010 Wikileaks document disclosures.
The Australian founder of WikiLeaks has been held on remand in London, England’s maximum-security Belmarsh prison since September 2019. Belmarsh has the unsavory nickname of “Britain’s Guantanamo Bay,” a reference to the U.S. military prison located within Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.
Legal troubles for Assange began in 2010 when the Swedish prosecutors brought sex offense charges against him. Female associates of the Wikileaks editor said, years later, that the Swedish police had forced them to lie about having non-consensual relations with the defendant. Assange always denied these accusations.
In 2012, Sweden asked Britain to extradite Assange for questioning. On June 19 of that year, Assange entered the Ecuadorian embassy in London seeking diplomatic asylum to avoid extradition to Sweden over these fabricated accounts.
The Ecuadorian government granted asylum to Assange on August 16, 2012. The Swedish government subsequently dropped the charges against Assange, being unable to conduct an investigation while Assange was sheltered within the foreign embassy.
Seven years later, on April 11, 2019, Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno accused Assange of repeatedly violating the terms of asylum and the Ecuadorian embassy abruptly withdrew Assange’s asylum, forcing his removal from the building the same day.
British police were waiting outside the Ecuadorian embassy and promptly arrested Assange on April 11. The Wikileaks whistleblower was sentenced to 50 weeks in prison for breaching bail conditions.
Swedish prosecutors reopened the 2017 sex offense case against Assange after his London arrest.
Assange was slated for release from Her Majesty’s Prison Belmarsh on September 2 but was forced to remain in prison after the custody period on his current jail term ends due to his “history of absconding.”
If the British court rules to extradite Assange to the U.S. he faces 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act of 1917 and one count of violating a computer crime law that allegedly is an additional espionage offense. The maximum jail sentence for these multiple alleged crimes is 175 years in prison.
Georgetown University international law professor Christopher Joyner wrote about how a legal loophole may help Assange if he is flown to the United States to stand trial:
“Perhaps most problematic for extradition cases involving acts of terrorism is the political offense exception. Many modern extradition treaties specifically exempt political offenses from extradition, since liberal and democratic governments developed a strong antipathy toward the idea of surrendering dissidents into the hands of a despotic government.”
Stephen F. Rohde, a constitutional lawyer, penned a letter to the Editor of the Los Angeles Times to point out the irregularity and injustice of the London extradition judge’s recent decision that Assange may not sit with his legal defense team in the courtroom to aid his own cause:
“Instead, he remains in the dock in the rear of the courtroom behind thick glass with poor acoustics, under medication to deal with the consequences of prolonged confinement, visibly struggling to understand what is going on.”
Rohde called for both transatlantic governments to drop their proceedings against Assange and release him:
“This heaps serious due process and human rights violations on top of the dangerous threat to freedom of the press posed by the entire unwarranted prosecution.
“U.S. and British authorities should be ashamed of themselves. Assange should be released immediately.”