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WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange back in court for showdown over extradition to US to face spying charges

Julian Assange on May 19, 2017, in London. Ecuador granted citizenship to Assange as part of a failed attempt to transfer him to Russia as a diplomat. (Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/Zuma Press/TNS)

The extradition hearing of WikiLeaks founder and publisher Julian Assange resumes in London on Sept. 7 after being postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Washington wants British authorities to extradite Assange to the U.S. to face a court over charges of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. The Department of Justice has indicted him on 18 counts, alleging 17 forms of espionage and 1 instance of computer misuse crimes connected to WikiLeaks’ dissemination of secret U.S. military documents provided to him by former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning.

Assange, 49, denies the charges and claims the U.S. documents WikiLeaks published in 2010 exposed war crimes and human rights abuses by the U.S. military in Iraq. WikiLeaks says the U.S. is trying to criminalize journalistic activity and if Assange is extradited it could have serious implications for First Amendment protections.

The hearing is expected to run until Oct. 2.

How did we get here? Here are highlights of Assange’s case and related events that have kept the Australian national in the news for over a decade:

• Assange has been locked up at London’s Belmarsh Prison, a facility that houses some of Britain’s most dangerous lawbreakers, since May 2019. His lawyers say he is unwell with various respiratory problems and that his mental health is suffering.

• Nils Melzer, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture, said in a recent USA TODAY interview that when he visited Assange in May last year he was displaying symptoms akin to “psychological torture” likely caused by prolonged exposure to extreme stress, chronic anxiety and isolation.

• Assange is in jail because he was found guilty of skipping bail in 2012, when he fled to Ecuador’s embassy in London for diplomatic refuge rather than turn himself in to British authorities for possible extradition to Sweden. At the time, investigators in the Scandinavian country wanted to question him over sexual assault allegations.

• Swedish prosecutors in 2019 dropped the sexual assault allegations against Assange, which included a claim of rape. Assange consistently denied the allegations and the UN’s Melzer said that the police reports that underpinned the allegations were riddled with contradictions and possibly even exculpatory evidence, such as text messages that indicate one of the claimants didn’t want to accuse Assange of anything and that it was the police who “made up the charges.”

• Assange’s seven-year residency at Ecuador’s poky red-brick embassy building, just yards from the famous luxury Harrods department store, came to an end amid a string of alleged transgressions by both sides. Ecuador says it kicked him out partly because of his unsocial behavior and because he was a constant source of distraction for embassy staff. Assange denies this and claims the U.S. was put under pressure by the Trump administration to expel him in return for improved relations with Quito.

• When Assange left Ecuador’s embassy in 2019 he was dragged by British police officers to a waiting van. He was sentenced to 50 weeks in prison for breaching bail in 2012. While he has now served this period, he remains in detention for the extradition hearing because prosecutors argued that he is a flight risk.

• Assange describes himself as a political refugee. He maintains that he is a journalist and should be immune from prosecution and that his work revealed embarrassing and highly damaging facts about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the detainees held at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Assange’s detractors say he doesn’t write stories or interview anyone or provide sufficient explanatory context to the material WikiLeaks releases and that the dissemination of raw, unfiltered documents and data – the publication of stolen classified materials – should not count as journalism.

• The First Amendment typically restrains the government from jailing, fining or imposing liability for what the press publishes. It does not shield journalists from criminal liability. Seventeen of the U.S. indictments against Assange are under the Espionage Act of 1917 and one is under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The Trump administration’s use of the espionage act breaks new legal ground because it is the first time it has been used to target a media organization as opposed to a government whistleblower, according to U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a press freedom advocacy organization.

• Assange faces up to 175 years in prison if he is convicted in a U.S. court. The British government has pledged not to send Assange to the U.S. if he faces the death penalty.

• In addition to publishing secret U.S. information, WikiLeaks has also been accused of playing a role in Russia’s efforts to help Donald Trump’s campaign against Hillary Clinton during her failed 2016 presidential run. A Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee report into the matter concluded that WikiLeaks likely knew it was assisting Russian intelligence when it published hacked emails from Clinton’s time as secretary of State. The committee’s review claimed that WikiLeaks has had a “relationship” with the Russian government since at least 2012 – Assange founded WikiLeaks in 2006 – and that it “reflects an alignment” in “seeking to undermine U.S. institutions and security.” Assange has long insisted the hacked emails didn’t come from Russian intelligence.

• The Senate committee’s report additionally concluded that then-Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone tried to get WikiLeaks to tell him about its planned information releases connected to the 2016 election. Stone visited Ecuador’s embassy at least once after Trump was elected. As part of testimony given during Assange’s extradition hearing in February, Assange’s lawyer told the court that Trump offered a pardon, allegedly delivered via former Republican lawmaker Dana Rohrabacher, to Assange if the WikiLeaks chief agreed to say Russia had nothing to do with hacking emails from Democrats during the 2016 presidential election. White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham called the claim by Assange’s lawyer “a complete fabrication and a total lie.” She also said Trump “barely knows Dana Rohrabacher.” Rohrabacher visited Ecuador’s embassy in 2017. He confirmed that he discussed the idea of a pardon with Assange but claimed he never discussed the matter with Trump himself.


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