By The Washington Post · William Booth, Karla Adam · WORLD
The Woolwich Crown Court proceeding marked a portentous new chapter in the long-running legal drama involving Assange.
Assange attorney Edward Fitzgerald told a packed courtroom adjacent to Britain's high-security Belmarsh prison that the prosecution by the U.S. Justice Department was "not motivated by genuine concerns for criminal justice but politics."
U.S. prosecutors want the 48-year-old Australian to stand trial in federal court in northern Virginia on charges that he violated the Espionage Act. Prosecutors allege that the anti-secrecy activist helped obtain and disseminate hundreds of thousands of pages of secret military documents and diplomatic cables regarding U.S. action in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to prosecutors, Assange helped Chelsea Manning, a former Army intelligence analyst, hack into government computers.
Fitzgerald argued that Assange will not receive a fair trial in the United States because of his foreign nationality and his political opinions.
The lawyer recalled that in 2017, then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo called WikiLeaks "a nonstate hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia."
Further, Fitzgerald claimed, Assange could face "inhuman and degrading treatment" in high-security isolation wings in U.S. prisons, as well as multiple life sentences.
The lawyer also cautioned the court that Assange's mental health was "fragile" and that he was at "high risk of suicide."
Fitzgerald noted that the Obama administration in 2013 decided not to prosecute Assange, for fear that it would set a precedent that could ensnare other journalists for publishing state secrets.
What changed, Fitzgerald asked.
"The answer is: President [Donald] Trump came to power."
The U.S. case for extradition was presented by James Lewis, who told the court that Assange was not a journalist but a hacker who conspired to publish stolen classified documents. The material was not redacted, Lewis stressed, and contained the names of sources who had assisted U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, thereby putting their lives in grave danger. He did not provide any examples of actual harm being done to the sources.
Lewis said WikiLeaks's initial publishing partners - the New York Times, the Guardian, El País, Der Spiegel and Le Monde - issued a joint statement saying they deplored the publishing of the sources' names.
Lewis said the crimes that Assange is alleged to have committed would also be prosecutable, under similar circumstances, in the United Kingdom under the Official Secrets Act. But he added that it was not for the British court to decide whether Assange is a patron of a free press, a hacker, a whistleblower or a journalist, but to turn him over to the United States for trial.
If found guilty of the 18 charges in U.S. court, Assange could face up to 175 years in prison. But Lewis argued it was hyperbolic for the defense to claim that Assange would receive that entire sentence, describing to the court more likely sentences of 48 or 63 months.
Speaking before District Judge Vanessa Baraitser, Lewis said Assange "is not charged with disclosure of embarrassing or awkward information that the government would rather not have disclosed." He is charged with conspiring to steal secret material.
Assange's supporters fear he would be forced to serve any sentence in the supermax federal facility in Florence, Colorado, in solitary confinement, beside al-Qaida terrorists, Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski and Robert Hanssen, the former FBI agent who spied for Soviet and Russian intelligence services against the United States.
Assange's extradition proceedings are to be divided into two parts: this first week of legal arguments, followed by two or three weeks of witness testimony in May.
The court hearings are taking place beside the gray walls of Belmarsh prison, Assange's home since he was dragged by police from the Ecuadoran Embassy in central London in April.
In pretrial hearings, Assange's attorneys signaled that they will argue that their client acted as nothing more nefarious than publisher and journalist - and that the prosecution is politically motivated, which should make extradition unlawful.
To bolster that assertion, Assange attorney Mark Summers has accused the Central Intelligence Agency of spying on Assange, via a Spanish proxy, in the Ecuadoran Embassy. Further, Summers has asserted a link between the "reinvigoration of the investigation" against Assange and Trump's presidency.
"This is part of an avowed war on whistleblowers to include investigative journalists and publishers," Summers told the court last year. "The American state has been actively engaged in intruding on privileged discussions between Mr. Assange and his lawyer."
Last week, Assange's legal team again invoked Trump. A lawyer told the court that former Republican congressman Dana Rohrabacher of California, an ally of the president, offered a pardon to Assange on Trump's behalf if the WikiLeaks founder would say that Russia had nothing to do with the 2016 hack and leak of emails from the Democratic National Committee.
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham called the suggestion of a pardon offer "a complete fabrication and a total lie."
Experts in British extradition law say Assange's attorneys face a tough task.
Nick Vamos, a former head of extradition at Britain's Crown Prosecution Service, said that British extradition courts are familiar with arguments about political motivation - just not in relation to requests from the United States.
"There is a very, very high degree of mutual trust and deference between two friendly nations," Vamos said. "So it takes an awful lot to persuade a U.K. court" that the U.S. system isn't fundamentally fair, "however much political intrigue is swirling around."