U.S. prosecutors say the Australian publisher and activist violated the Espionage Act by conspiring to obtain and disclose hundreds of thousands of secret government documents, including classified diplomatic cables and reports from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Prosecutors have also charged Assange with conspiracy to commit “computer intrusions” by helping Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning try to hack a password to get access to even more files. They 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 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. In earlier hearings, the U.S. case for extradition was presented by James Lewis, who 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.
Previous extradition hearings have seen lawyers arguing legal points before a judge while Assange sat behind a glass wall. Monday’s hearings are to take place at the Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court in London, where Assange’s lawyers will call witnesses to testify in person or via remote video link.
The judge and lawyers will be in the courtroom, but as a precaution against the coronavirus, observers and journalists will be limited to watching via tightly controlled virtual links. The hearings will not be broadcast to the public. They are expected to last three to four weeks.
On the list of potential witnesses for Assange are linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky, who will testify about alleged political motivations behind the charges, and University of Maryland professor Mark Feldstein, a former investigative reporter who may speak to Assange’s role in breaking national security stories. 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 said Assange could face multiple life sentences 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 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, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham called the suggestion of a pardon offer “a complete fabrication and a total lie.”