WikiLeaks’ Assange makes last stand in UK court

WikiLeaks’ Assange makes last stand in UK court

Activist has fought 13-year legal battle against extradition to US over release of military secrets

A placard depicting WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is seen outside the High Court in London on Tuesday. (Photo: Reuters)
A placard depicting WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is seen outside the High Court in London on Tuesday. (Photo: Reuters)

LONDON - WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on Tuesday embarked on what could be his last chance to stop his extradition from Britain to the United States after more than 13 years battling in the English courts.

American prosecutors are seeking to put Assange, 52, on trial on 18 counts relating to WikiLeaks’ high-profile release of vast troves of confidential US military records and diplomatic cables.

They argue the leaks imperilled the lives of their agents and there is no excuse for his criminality. Assange’s supporters hail him as an anti-establishment hero and a journalist, who is being persecuted for exposing wrongdoing.

Assange was absent from court due to illness as the hearing began.

Opening the two-day hearing in his client’s absence, his lawyer Edward Fitzgerald said his prosecution could not be justified.

“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,” Fitzgerald said.

Earlier, he told the judge, Victoria Sharp, at London’s High Court that his 52-year-old client was “not well today” and would not be attending either in person or by video link.

Outside the High Court, a large, noisy crowd gathered, chanting “Only one decision, no extradition”.

“We have two big days ahead. We don’t know what to expect, but you are here because the world is watching,” Assange’s wife Stella told the crowd.

“They have to know they can’t get away with this. Julian needs his freedom and we all need the truth.”

Assange’s legal battles began in 2010, and he subsequently spent seven years holed up in the embassy of Ecuador in London before he was dragged out and jailed in 2019 for breaching bail conditions. He has been held in a maximum-security jail in southeast London ever since, even getting married there.

Britain finally approved his extradition to the US in 2022 after a judge initially blocked it because concerns about his mental health meant he would be at risk of suicide if deported.

His lawyers will try to overturn that approval at a two-day hearing in front of two judges in what could be his last chance to stop his extradition in the English courts.

They will argue that Assange’s prosecution is politically motivated and marks an attack on free speech, as the first time a publisher has been charged under the US Espionage Act.

Assange’s supporters include Amnesty International, media groups that worked with WikiLeaks and politicians in his country of birth Australia, including Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who last week voted in favour of a motion calling for his return to Australia. (Story continues below)

Reporters surround Stella Assange, the wife of Julian Assange, as she walks into the High Court in London on Tuesday. (Photo: Reuters)

‘He will die’

If Assange wins this case, a full appeal hearing will be held to again consider his challenge. If he loses, his only remaining option would be at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) where he has an appeal lodged pending the London ruling.

Speaking last week, Stella Assange said the decision was a matter of life and death and his lawyers would apply to the ECHR for an emergency injunction if necessary.

“His health is in decline, physically and mentally,” she said. “His life is at risk every single day he stays in prison – and if he is extradited he will die.”

Assange’s brother Gabriel Shipton compared the WikiLeaks founder with Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition activist who died in prison on Friday while serving a three-decade sentence.

WikiLeaks first came to prominence in 2010 when it published a US military video showing a 2007 attack by Apache helicopters in Baghdad that killed a dozen people, including two Reuters news staff.

It then released thousands of secret classified files and diplomatic cables that laid bare often highly critical US appraisals of world leaders from Russian President Vladimir Putin to members of the Saudi royal family.

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