London, United Kingdom – A London court is due on Monday to start hearing arguments on the extradition to the United States of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
The hearing will last for about a week, with proceedings expected to resume on May 18 for an additional three weeks.
A US grand jury indicted Assange last May with 17 counts under the US Espionage Act and one count of computer hacking. As each of the 17 counts carries a maximum sentence of 10 years, he could face a total of 175 years’ jail should he be brought to stand trial across the Atlantic.
The espionage charges refer to Assange’s activities with WikiLeaks in 2010-11, when the website published classified diplomatic and military documents exposing alleged war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as more than 700 secret reports that revealed the ill-treatment and torture of detainees at the US military detention camp in Guantanamo Bay. The information was made public in collaboration with selected media outlets including The Guardian, Le Monde and The New York Times.
Assange is accused of conspiring with former US army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to obtain and disclose information “with reason to believe that [it] was to be used to the injury of the United States or the advantage of a foreign nation”, according to a Department of Justice (DoJ) press release.
One of Assange’s long-time lawyers, Jennifer Robinson, said at a press conference last week that his legal team was preparing arguments about the political nature of the offence with which Assange is charged. Under the UK-US extradition treaty, extradition cannot be granted for political offences, and it is the competent authorities in the UK who are tasked with determining whether the extradition request is politically motivated.
Assange’s defence lawyers are also expected to raise questions about free speech, claiming the charges against Assange amount to the criminalisation of typical journalism activities. Another line of argument will be the unbalanced nature of the US-UK treaty.
With the losing side expected to appeal, proceedings could take years and are likely to be mired in controversies. Last week, Assange’s lawyers claimed during a prehearing that Assange was offered a pardon in 2017 if he would deny Russian involvement in leaking emails from the Democratic party ahead of the 2016 US presidential election.
“The principle is that in British law, for example, you are allowed to do dodgy things in the name of public interest,” Charlie Beckett, the director of Polis, the London School of Economics’ international journalism think tank, told Al Jazeera.
“For example, when the Telegraph [newspaper] published their stories about MPs’ expenses back in 2009, it was hinged on stolen data. They paid for stolen data. It’s clearly in the public interest, and no one even bothered to even try to pursue them. I think this comes under a similar rubric,” he explained. “On principle, it would be a blow to media freedom if he’s extradited.”
Among WikiLeaks’ most prominent releases is a video known as “Collateral Murder”, which showed US soldiers shooting and killing 18 civilians – among them two Reuters journalists – from a helicopter in Iraq.
Assange is currently held in the high-security Belmarsh prison in south-east London. Supporters have expressed concern about his physical and mental health, and the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer, said earlier this year that Assange exhibited signs of psychological torture.
The 48-year-old has been in custody since last April, when Ecuador’s President Lenin Moreno withdrew his asylum status. He was issued a 50-week jail sentence for breaching bail conditions back in 2012, when he sought refuge inside the Ecuadorean embassy in London following Sweden’s issuing of an international arrest warrant over rape allegations. The Swedish authorities dropped that investigation in November 2019.
“Chelsea Manning, who provided the documents that WikiLeaks published, was arrested and for the first eleven months of her arrest was held in solitary confinement for 23 days at a time, which amounts to torture,” Marjorie Cohn, a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in California, told Al Jazeera.
Assange’s extradition, she added, would be against international law according to the principle of “non-refoulement” contained in the UN Convention Against Torture.
“A country has a duty to refuse extradition when it would violate a fundamental right. The right to be free from torture and inhuman treatment is a fundamental right,” Cohn added.