UK court sets Feb '20 timetable for Assange US extradition trial
London: A UK judge on Friday set a February 2020 timeline for the extradition trial of Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange, who faces charges of computer hacking and espionage in the US.
At a Westminster Magistrates' Court hearing in London, Chief Magistrate Emma Arbuthnot ruled that a full extradition hearing lasting five days should begin on February 25 next year, after UK home secretary Sajid Javid had certified the US extradition request.
Assange, who appeared via videolink from the high-security Belmarsh prison for the hearing, told the judge that "175 years of my life is effectively at stake" as he defended his website against hacking claims. "WikiLeaks is nothing but a publisher," he said.
The barrister representing the 47-year-old Australian national described the charges against his client as raising a "multiplicity of profound issues" and told the court that his client will also be challenging his 50-week imprisonment for breach of his bail conditions in the UK.
"We say it [the case] represents an outrageous and full-frontal assault on journalistic rights," said Mark Summers.
A large group of Assange supporters had gathered outside the courtroom to chant slogans and wave placards calling for "Justice for Assange".
Opening the proceedings, barrister Ben Brandon, representing the US authorities, said: "This [case] is related to one of the largest compromises of confidential information in the history of the United States."
He claimed that the US evidence will show that Assange "first encouraged" former US army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to illegally obtain documents and then agreed with her to "crack" a password on a Pentagon computer.
"By taking steps to crack the password hash, it's said that Mr Assange was also attempting to illegally obtain and receive classified information," Brandon said. The documents in question were said to be related to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and information on secret intelligence sources.
"By publishing that unredacted material on the internet, Mr Assange created a grave and imminent risk that human intelligence sources, including journalists, human rights defenders and political activists, would suffer serious physical harm or arbitrary detention," Brandon said. On Thursday, UK home secretary Javid confirmed that he had signed an order following a request from the US government to extradite the Wikileaks co-founder. "It is a decision ultimately for the courts, but there is a very important part of it for the home secretary and I want to see justice done at all times and we've got a legitimate extradition request, so I've signed it, but the final decision is now with the courts, the senior Pakistani-origin minister said.
Assange, who faces an 18-count indictment by the US Justice Department, had been too ill to appear before the court at a scheduled hearing last month and appeared wearing a grey T-shirt and still sporting his white beard. Judge Arbuthnot, who presides over a number of high-profile Indian extradition requests including that of liquor baron Vijay Mallya and diamond merchant Nirav Modi, is also in charge of his extradition trial.
Unlike the India-UK Extradition Treaty, the US-UK treaty involves a relatively simpler legal process for extradition as the requesting state does not require to establish an elaborate prima facie case against the accused before the British courts.
The charges against Assange under the US Espionage Act accuse him of soliciting and publishing classified information and conspiring to hack into a government computer.
Assange has consistently denied the allegations and his supporters have accused the US and UK governments of an attack on free speech. He is currently serving a 50-week sentence in Britain for breach of his bail conditions after he spent seven years at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he had sought asylum.