Assange's lawyers to seek asylum in France for whistleblower

Ahead of extradition hearing which begins on Monday in London, whistleblower's legal team appeal to French authorities.

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    The WikiLeaks founder was arrested in London last April, after being evicted from the Ecuadorian Embassy [File: Matt Dunham/AP]
    The WikiLeaks founder was arrested in London last April, after being evicted from the Ecuadorian Embassy [File: Matt Dunham/AP]

    Paris, France - Julian Assange's European legal team has said it intends to seek political asylum in France for the whistleblower, days before his US extradition trial is set to begin in London.

    "We will ask to meet with [French President Emmanuel Macron] in the coming days, if not in the coming hours," Assange's French lawyer Eric Dupond-Moretti told journalists during a press conference.

    "France is the homeland of human rights," he added.

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    Assange spent three years living in France, from 2007 to 2010, and his youngest child still lives in the country with his mother.

    The French government previously denied a 2015 asylum request from Assange, after he published an open letter in Le Monde asking then President Francois Hollande for refugee status.

    At the time, the government said Assange's situation did not "present an immediate danger".

    The WikiLeaks founder was arrested in London last April, after being evicted from the Ecuadorian Embassy where he had spent more than seven years holed up to avoid extradition to Sweden over rape allegations.

    Assange's lawyers said they now feared for the 48-year-year-old Australian national's life, citing health concerns and alleged human rights violations in prison.

    "In my whole career as a lawyer, I have never seen such a systematic violation of victim's rights," said Baltasar Garzon, the Spanish head of Assange's European legal team.

    Assange is fighting his extradition to the US over 18 criminal charges - 17 of which fall under the country's Espionage Act.

    He is accused of helping former US army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning publish hundreds of classified State Department documents. If extradited, he could face up to 175 years in jail in the US.

    Those who support Assange insist the charges have nothing to do with spying and pose a threat to journalists and freedom of the press worldwide.

    "[Assange] has made an incredible contribution to journalism, and we must defend him," Christophe Deloire, the secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders, told Al Jazeera.  

    The Paris-based NGO has launched a petition against Assange's extradition, stating the charges set a "dangerous precedent" to journalists who publish classified information of public interest.

    Assange's lawyers also reiterated claims from a member of his UK defence team that he was offered a pardon from a member of the Trump administration in exchange for publicly denying any Russian involvement in the hacking of Democratic emails during the 2016 elections.

    The White House has denied the claim, but Garzon said the team would provide "documentary proof" at the extradition hearing that begins on February 24.

    Assange's father John Shipton, who was also present at Thursday's press conference, said he continued to fear for his son's life.

    "Julian now being 10 years in arbitrary detention, it's incomprehensible," Shipton said. "I can't for the life of me understand why he's still in prison. He has committed no crime."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News