In Depth

Julian Assange: everything you need to know about his hacking court battle

WikiLeaks founder could face up to 175 years in prison if extradited to the US

Julian Assange is planning the next move in his legal battle against extradition to the US after suffering a crushing defeat at the Old Bailey yesterday.

“Hundreds of protesters gathered” outside the London court to support the WikiLeaks founder, including his father John Shipton and fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, who said Assange was “shining the light on all the corruption in the world”, Sky News reports. 

But after Assange failed to get 18 new charges against him thrown out, what next as the extradition hearing continues? 

What are the charges?

Australian national Assange is wanted by the US over the publication of classified documents in 2010 and 2011. And as he prepared to appear before the Old Bailey on Monday at the beginning of a four-week hearing, he was re-arrested in the court’s cells over new charges contained in a US indictment.

The 18 new charges including plotting to hack computers and conspiring to obtain and disclose national defence information.

The indictment alleges “that he conspired with army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to crack a scrambled password, known as ‘hash’, to a classified US defence department computer”, Sky News says. 

The charges also offer “further details of alleged hacking plotters that Assange and his WikiLeaks colleagues are said to have recruited”, the broadcaster adds.

Assange “repeatedly sought, obtained, and disseminated information that the United States classified due to the serious risk that unauthorised disclosure could harm the national security of the United States”, according to the indictment.

The charges carry a maximum of 175 years in prison in the US.

What is his defence?

Assange’s legal team argued that the new indictment came too late for them to adequately prepare a response. Edward Fitzgerald QC, who is representing Assange, “said he had not seen his client in person for six months, in part due to the [coronavirus] pandemic”, the BBC reports.

Fellow defence lawyer Mark Summers QC said the fresh allegations had been brought “at the 11th hour” without warning or explanation, adding: “What is happening is abnormal, unfair and liable to create injustice if allowed to continue.”

But Judge Vanessa Baraitser rejected the bid to have the allegations dropped, saying the issues “must take place in the context of considering the extradition request and not before it”.

Assange, who has been in Belmarsh Prison for 16 months, has claimed that a US court is likely to convict and slap him with a life sentence, which would be “inhuman and degrading” for someone “with his mental vulnerabilities”.

His legal team have warned of “a risk Assange would take his own life if extradited”, says the Daily Mail.

In addition, “the lawyers say that if he loses, the case will set a precedent for the US government to prosecute foreign journalists and will be seized upon by repressive regimes around the world”, The Times reports. 

What happens next?

Dozens of witnesses are due to be called to give evidence during the Old Bailey hearing. The judge “is expected to take weeks or even months to consider her verdict, with the losing side likely to appeallikely to appeal”, NBC News reports.

And if the court approves extradition to the US, the UK government will still have the final say on the matter.

Ahead of the hearing, human rights group Amnesty International said that prosecuting Assange could have “a chilling effect on media freedom”.

Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary for the National Union of Journalists, has also spoken out in favour of the high-profile whistle-blower, arguing that extradition “will send a clear signal that journalists and publishers are at risk whenever their work discomforts the United States government”.

“Media freedom the world over will take a significant backward step if Assange is forced to face these charges at the behest of a US president,” she said.

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