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U.S. extradition trial begins in London for WikiLeaks' Julian Assange



Prosecutors have also charged Assange with conspiracy to commit “computer intrusions” by helping U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning try to hack a password to get access to even more files. In a superseding indictment unsealed in June, prosecutors say he also solicited hackers to break into Icelandic government computers to steal information. They want Assange transported to Northern Virginia to face federal charges.

Assange is fighting the extradition. His lawyers argue that the crimes of which he’s accused are “purely political offenses” and say British treaty law should protect him from forced transfer.

The WikiLeaks publisher appeared in court Monday at the Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court in London, pale but clean-shaven, wearing a suit and tie. He consulted with his lawyers face-to-face for the first time in six months and watched the proceedings from behind a glass wall. He answered “no” when asked by the judge if he would consent to being extradited to the United States.

Assange’s lawyers asked District Judge Vanessa Baraitser for a four-month adjournment, until January 2021, arguing that the superseding indictment against their client, handed down in June, contained new information (though no new charges) and required more time to investigate and counter. The judge denied the request for delay.

The first and only virtual witness for the defense on Monday was Mark Feldstein, a former investigative reporter and now University of Maryland journalism professor, who appeared via remote video link from the United States.

Feldstein’s first words were “I’m having a hard time hearing you.” His testimony was beset by technical glitches by the court, including garbled sound and blank screens. At one point, Feldstein called his wife in to help, as he struggled to help London with the connection.

Feldstein did manage to present a few minutes of cogent testimony to the court, telling the judge that classified leaks are a “daily occurrence” in U.S. news media, that much of leaking is done by government officials, and that the practice dates to the time of George Washington. Feldstein told the court that journalists and publishers have been threatened with legal action before but that they’ve never faced criminal prosecution, as that could violate First Amendment protections.

Then the link with the courtroom was somehow severed.

The judge and lawyers were in the courtroom, but as a precaution against the coronavirus, most observers and journalists were watching the proceedings via tightly controlled virtual links. The hearings will not be broadcast to the public. They are expected to last three to four weeks and are scheduled to resume on Tuesday.

The U.S. case for extradition is being presented by James Lewis, who earlier told a British court that Assange was not an investigative reporter but a reckless hacker who conspired to publish stolen classified documents. Lewis said WikiLeaks’ publication of unredacted material with the names of sources who had helped U.S. forces put lives at risk.

Since a gray-bearded Assange was expelled from the Ecuadoran Embassy in London in April 2019 and dragged away by British police, the anti-secrecy crusader has languished behind the high walls of Belmarsh prison outside the capital. He first served a short sentence for violating bail in a Swedish sexual assault investigation — the investigation has since been dropped — and has remained imprisoned during the extradition proceedings.

In April, his former lawyer and now partner Stella Moris revealed that Assange secretly fathered the couple’s two children, 3-year-old Gabriel and 19-month-old Max, conceived during visits by Moris to the Ecuadoran Embassy.

Moris visited Assange in Belmarsh prison last month for the first time since March and took the children to see their father. “He looked a lot thinner than the last time I had seen him. He is also in a lot of pain with a frozen shoulder and a sprained ankle,” she wrote on a crowdfunding website.

On the list of potential witnesses for Assange is linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky, who will testify about alleged political motivations behind the charges.

Assange lawyer Edward Fitzgerald has argued that Assange’s politics, his foreign citizenship and his affiliations would keep him from receiving a fair trial in the United States.

In court documents, Assange’s lawyers have quoted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who as CIA director called WikiLeaks “a nonstate hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia.”

Fitzgerald previously told the court Assange could face a life sentence in America and “inhuman and degrading treatment” in a high-security federal prison.

Assange’s supporters have warned that he would be sent to the supermax federal facility in Florence, Colo., which now houses al-Qaeda terrorists, Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski and Robert ­Hanssen, a former FBI agent who spied for Soviet and Russian intelligence services against the United States.

Physicians and psychiatrists are also on the witness list, expected to testify to Assange’s weakened physical and mental state, to bolster his legal team’s contention that Assange is at “high risk” of suicide if he is extradited.

Lewis has said the crimes Assange is alleged to have committed would also be prosecutable, under similar circumstances, in Britain under the Official Secrets Act.

Lewis argued that the defense was exaggerating when it claimed Assange would receive a 175-year sentence. He said it was more likely he would get 48 or 63 months.

Another possible witness for Assange is WikiLeaks lawyer Jennifer Robinson, who would testify that she was present in the Ecuadoran Embassy when former congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) visited her client in 2017.

Robinson has said that Rohrabacher, an ally of President Trump, suggested Assange could be pardoned 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.

When that news broke in February, former White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham called the suggestion of a pardon offer “a complete fabrication and a total lie.”

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