WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's lawyers and the US government argued in a London court on Monday over a high-stakes extradition process delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Assange, who spent nearly a year and a half in a British prison, sat in the dock of the Old Bailey Criminal Court and officially denied the US extradition request.
Several dozen supporters, including fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and Assange's partner Stella Moris, gathered outside the courthouse ahead of the hearing on Monday morning.
American prosecutors have charged the 49-year-old Australian with 18 allegations of espionage and computer abuse because Wikileaks published classified US military documents a decade ago. The indictment provides for a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison.
American authorities claim Assange teamed up with US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to hack into a Pentagon computer and uncover hundreds of thousands of classified diplomatic cables and military files about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In a new indictment filed in June, US prosecutors also said he had conspired with members of hacking organizations and tried to recruit hackers to provide WikiLeaks with classified information. This indictment expanded the U.S. case against Assange but did not add any new charges.
Assange lawyers say the charge is a politically motivated abuse of power that will restrict press freedom and endanger journalists around the world.
They argue that Assange is a journalist entitled to initial adjustment protection, saying that the leaked documents exposed the misconduct of the US military. Among the files released by WikiLeaks was a video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack by American forces in Baghdad, killing 11 people, including two Reuters journalists.
"Journalists and whistleblowers who expose illegal corporate or government activity and war crimes – such as the publications Julian was indicted for – should be protected from prosecution," Assange attorney Jennifer Robinson said before the hearing.
Assange's legal troubles began in 2010 when he was arrested in London at the request of Sweden to question him on allegations of rape and sexual assault on two women. He refused to go to Stockholm and feared extradition or illegal transfer to the United States or the US detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In 2012, Assange sought refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he was out of reach of the British and Swedish authorities – but also practically a prisoner unable to leave the tiny diplomatic mission in London's Tony Knightsbridge area.
The relationship between Assange and his hosts eventually deteriorated and he was evicted from the embassy in April 2019. The UK police immediately arrested him for jumping on bail in 2012.
Sweden closed the sex crimes investigation in November 2019 because of so much time having passed, but Assange remains in London's maximum security Belmarsh Prison while awaiting the extradition decision.
Supporters say the ordeal damaged Assange's physical and mental health, leaving him with depression, dental problems and a serious shoulder condition.
Journalist organizations and human rights groups have urged the UK to decline the extradition request. Amnesty International said Assange was "the target of a negative public campaign by US officials at the highest level".
The case is scheduled to run through early October. District Judge Vanessa Baraitser is expected to take weeks or even months to ponder her verdict, with the losing side likely to appeal.