WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will fight for his freedom in a UK court after a decade of legal drama as he questions the American authorities' attempt to extradite him for spying on the publication of classified US military documents.
Assange lawyers and the U.S. government will face each other in London on Monday in an extradition negotiation delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
American prosecutors have charged the 49-year-old Australian with 18 espionage and computer abuse, a maximum sentence of 175 years. His lawyers say the charge is a politically motivated abuse of power that will restrict press freedom and endanger journalists.
Assange attorney Jennifer Robinson said the case "is essentially about basic human rights and free speech."
"Journalists and whistleblowers who expose illegal corporate or government activity and war crimes – such as the publications Julian was charged for – should be protected from prosecution," she said.
American prosecutors say Assange is a criminal, not a hero of freedom of speech.
They claim Assange teamed up with U.S. 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. They also said he conspired with members of hacking organizations and tried to recruit hackers to supply WikiLeaks with classified information.
"By distributing the materials in unedited form, he has likely exposed people – human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, religious leaders, dissidents and their families – to serious harm, torture or even death," said James Lewis, a British lawyer for the US -Government said a hearing in February.
Assange argues that he is a journalist entitled to First Amendment protection, and says the leaked documents exposed US military malpractice. 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.
His lawyers argue that the charges are an abuse of lawsuit by a Trump administration set up to set an example for Assange. They say he is being held in inhumane conditions and will not get a fair trial in the United States.
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".
"If Julian Assange is prosecuted, it could have a terrifying effect on media freedom and lead publishers and journalists to self-censorship for fear of retaliation," said Nils Muižnieks, European director of Amnesty.
The four-week extradition negotiation is part of a twisted saga of competing claims of hacking, espionage, and cunning. Assange's lawyers claim US intelligence ordered a private security company to spy on him while he was living in the Ecuadorian embassy in London – a case currently under trial in a Spanish court.
Assange also claims that he was offered a pardon by the Trump administration if he agreed that Russia was not involved in sharing Democratic National Committee emails released by WikiLeaks during the 2016 US election campaign. The White House denies this claim.
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.
Assange's partner, Stella Moris, who had two sons when he lived at the embassy, said he looked thinner and was in "great pain" when she visited him in prison for the first time since March in late August.
Extradition negotiations opened in February but paused when the UK was locked down in March to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. It continues with social distancing measures in court and video feeds for journalists and observers to watch TV.
Assange is expected to be rushed from Belmarsh to the Criminal Court in Old Bailey in a prison truck to hold the hearing, which is due to run through early October. District Judge Vanessa Baraitser will likely take weeks or even months to ponder her verdict, with the losing side likely to appeal.