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WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange due in court to fight extradition

Julian Assange. (Cancillería del Ecuador/Released)

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is due to appear in a London court Monday to begin his battle against extradition to the U.S. on espionage charges.

Assange, 48, who was removed by British police from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in April after being holed up there for seven years, faces 18 charges, including conspiring to hack into a Pentagon computer. A trial on his indictment under the U.S. Espionage Act could, 1st Amendment advocates warn, set a precedent for far-reaching restrictions on press freedoms.

The extradition hearing will not focus on wrongdoing, but instead determine whether Assange can be extradited under the terms of a U.S.-U.K. treaty.

If brought to the U.S. and eventually convicted, Assange, who had taken refuge in the embassy to avoid prosecution in Sweden in an unrelated sexual assault case that was eventually dropped, could face up to 175 years in prison.

Assange is a controversial figure described by critics as having endangered lives and national security by releasing secret U.S. diplomatic cables and classified documents in 2010 related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Assange’s advocates say he has exposed the worst abuses of governmental power and that the requested extradition of him is a politically motivated act by authorities shamed by his revelations.

Assange has a myriad of high-profile and celebrity supporters, some of whom took to the streets of London on Saturday to demand his release.

Fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters and former Greek finance minister Yannis Varoufakis were among those voicing their support at the rally. Holding aloft banners that said, “The truth will set you free,” the hundreds-strong crowd marched from Australia House to Parliament Square.

“This is not about left or right, we can unite on this,” said Kristinn Hrafnsson, currently the editor in chief of WikiLeaks. “It is a dark force against [those] who want justice, transparency and truth.”

It is a decade since WikiLeaks made headlines across the world by publishing secret U.S. diplomatic cables and documents including a classified U.S. military video that showed a 2007 Apache helicopter attack killing Baghdad residents and two Reuters news staffers. American authorities claim that the release of such classified documents put lives at risk and they say they have evidence that Assange conspired to hack into U.S. military databases with former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, who was the whistleblower.

Manning was convicted by a court martial under the Espionage Act and spent several years behind bars, but Assange has never faced trial. Instead, he spent seven years in the embassy in London’s posh Knightsbridge neighborhood in 2012 after Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno granted him political asylum.

He consistently vehemently denied the Swedish sexual offense allegations, which were eventually dropped.

Assange was also a looming figure in the recent criminal prosecution of Roger Stone, longtime friend and ally of President Trump. Witnesses in the trial testified that Trump presidential campaign associates were eager to gather information about Democratic National Committee emails, which the U.S. says were hacked by Russia and then provided to WikiLeaks.

Stephen K. Bannon, who served as the Trump campaign’s chief executive, testified during the trial that Stone had boasted about his ties to Assange, alerting them to pending new batches of damaging emails. Campaign officials saw Stone as the “access point” to WikiLeaks, he said.

Assange’s relationship with the Ecuadorians eventually soured and he was evicted from the embassy in 2019, paving the way for his arrest by British authorities.

Moreno said that Assange was jeopardizing relations between Ecuador and other countries by voicing his political opinions using social media. Ecuadorian officials also complained that he failed to clean the bathroom or look after his cat.

He has since been held in Belmarsh prison, in southeast London, where he has been serving a 50-week sentence for bail violations.

In June, Britain’s then-Home Secretary Sajid Javid signed the U.S. extradition request, effectively clearing the way for the case to be heard at Woolwich Crown Court.

“I want to see justice done at all times and we’ve got a legitimate extradition request, so I’ve signed it, but the final decision is now with the courts,” Javid said at the time.

The extradition hearing will continue for a week and then be placed on hold until May 18 so that both sides can gather more evidence ahead of a three-week hearing.

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© 2020 the Los Angeles Times