WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange returned to court in London on Monday for a hearing to decide whether he should be extradited to the United States for leaking secrets about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Supporters protested as the 49-year-old Australian was brought to the Old Bailey, brandishing placards reading “Don’t Extradite Assange” and “Stop this political trial”.
Fashion designer Vivienne Westwood said the former hacker was “shining the light on all the corruption in the world” while his father told the crowd the hearing was an “abuse trial.”
Earlier, Assange’s partner, Stella Moris, delivered an 80,000-strong petition opposing his extradition to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Downing Street office.
In an interview published in The Times newspaper on Saturday, Moris, 37, said she feared he would take his own life, and their two young sons, who were conceived during his asylum in Ecuador’s London embassy, would grow up without a father.
The clean-shaven Assange appeared in the dock wearing a dark suit and maroon tie — the first time he has been seen in public since the first part of the hearing in February.
He spoke to confirm his name and date of birth, and said he did not consent to extradition.
The first morning of the hearing — due to last three to four weeks — saw district judge Vanessa Baraitser set out what rules both sides will abide by.
It had been set to go ahead in April but was delayed by the coronavirus outbreak.
Assange faces 18 charges under the US Espionage Act for the 2010 release of 500,000 secret files detailing aspects of US military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Washington claims he helped intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to steal the documents before recklessly exposing confidential sources around the world.
If convicted, he could be jailed for up to 175 years.
Any ruling in favour of extradition is “almost certain” to be appealed by the losing side, according to John Rees of the Don’t Extradite Assange Campaign.
Assange — who has become a figurehead for press freedom and investigative journalism — had a “very strong defence”, Rees added.
But he was concerned the case had become “highly politicised”.
A previous hearing was told that US President Donald Trump promised a pardon if Assange denied Russia leaked emails from the campaign of his 2016 election opponent Hillary Clinton.
– Frail –
At the February hearing, Assange’s lawyer, Edward Fitzgerald, said his client would not get a fair trial in the United States and would be a suicide risk.
James Lewis, representing the US government, said WikiLeaks was responsible for “one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States”.
“Reporting or journalism is not an excuse for criminal activities or a licence to break ordinary criminal laws,” he added.
Assange appeared weak and confused during his February court appearance, apparently forgetting his date of birth.
His legal team has repeatedly warned about his health, including from the spread of Covid-19, and an independent UN rights expert said in November that his continued detention at a high-security prison was putting his life at risk.
Assange’s father John Shipton told supporters that “the malice that constantly falls like a Niagara upon Julian is just appalling, and indicates to us that the administration of justice here is enfeebled”.
– Long-running saga –
The saga began in 2010 when Assange faced allegations of sexual assault and rape in Sweden, which he denied.
He was in Britain at the time but dodged an attempt to extradite him to Sweden by claiming political asylum in Ecuador’s embassy in London.
For seven years he lived in a small apartment in the embassy, but after a change of government in Ecuador, Quito lost patience with its guest and turned him over to British police in April 2019.
Swedish prosecutors confirmed last year they had dropped the rape investigation, saying that despite a “credible” account from the alleged victim there was insufficient evidence to proceed.