A lawyer for imprisoned WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange urged a British court to block his extradition to the United States on Monday, the first day of a hearing expected to last several months.
Assange’s lawyer Edward Fitzgerald told Woolwich Crown Court that Washington was pursuing the extradition out of “political motives.”
The US Justice Department said it charged Australian citizen Assange, 48, with conspiring with former US military intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to leak a trove of classified material in 2010.
James Lewis, representing the US government, argued that WikiLeaks’ circulation of unredacted cables had put sources in Afghanistan and Iraq at risk of torture and death, adding that some of the sources had since “disappeared.”
Scores of people gathered outside the court in south-east London, many chanting: “Free Julian Assange!”
The protesters carried placards with messages including “Jail the war criminals,” “Don’t shoot the messenger” and “Don’t extradite Assange: Journalism is not a crime.”
“Today journalism itself is on trial,” said the Defend Assange Campaign, which organized protests on Monday in cities including Berlin, Brussels, Vienna, Athens, New York, Washington, Sydney, Seoul and Mexico City.
Lewis suggested that anyone involved in hacking into secure information systems could face similar charges to Assange.
“Reporting or journalism is not an excuse for criminal activities or a licence to break ordinary criminal laws,” he said.
Lewis said claims by Assange’s lawyers that he could face a sentence of up to 175 years in prison if found guilty by a US court were “hyperbole.”
“We are discussing the harm that was revealed by the releases of WikiLeaks in 2010 and 2011,” WikiLeaks editor Kristinn Hrafnsson told reporters outside the court. “Why aren’t we here talking about the war crimes?”
Rebecca Vincent, of Paris-based Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF), also called for Assange’s release and said RSF was monitoring the British hearing – “an unprecedented step for us to undertake…in an established democratic country.”
Massimo Moratti, Amnesty International’s deputy Europe director, said the US government’s “unrelenting pursuit of Julian Assange…is nothing short of a full-scale assault on the right to freedom of expression.”
“The potential chilling effect on journalists and others who expose official wrongdoing by publishing information disclosed to them by credible sources could have a profound impact on the public’s right to know what their government is up to,” Moratti said.
The extradition hearing is scheduled to adjourn on Friday and resume on May 18.
British police arrested Assange in April at the Ecuadorian embassy for failing to surrender to an earlier warrant issued in relation to a Swedish extradition request.
A court sentenced Assange to 50 weeks in prison in May for breach of bail conditions linked to the Swedish charges of sexual assault, which were later dropped.
Manning was jailed for seven years for leaking documents, including State Department cables and military videos, to WikiLeaks to draw the public’s attention to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
She was released in 2017, after former president Barack Obama commuted her original 35-year sentence, but jailed again in March for refusing to testify to a grand jury in a case involving WikiLeaks and Assange. (dpa)