WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange leaves Westminster Magistrates Court in London, Britain January 13, 2020. REUTERS/Simon Dawson
LONDON (Reuters) – Julian Assange resumed his battle in a London court on Monday to avoid extradition to the United States to face criminal charges over the activities of his WikiLeaks website, after months of delay due to the coronavirus lockdown.
The U.S. authorities accuse Australian-born Assange, 49, of conspiring to hack government computers and of violating an espionage law in connection with the release of confidential cables by WikiLeaks in 2010-2011.
Assange, clean-shaven and wearing a suit at Monday’s hearing, formally declined to be extradited to face a superseding indictment issued by U.S. authorities in June. Assange is seen by his admirers as a champion of free speech who exposed U.S. abuses of power. His critics say that by publishing unredacted documents, he recklessly endangered the lives of intelligence sources.
He has also attracted more recent criticism over the release by WikiLeaks during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign of documents stolen from the Democratic National Committee, damaging nominee Hillary Clinton. He denies accusations by U.S. investigators that WikiLeaks obtained those documents from Russian hackers. The issue is not part of the legal proceedings.
Assange made international headlines in 2010 when WikiLeaks published a U.S. military video showing a 2007 attack by Apache helicopters in Baghdad that killed a dozen people, including two Reuters news staff. The site later published vast troves of U.S. military records and diplomatic cables.
The extradition hearings started in February but were then postponed for a few months before being further delayed because of a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Assange’s lawyers argue that he would not receive a fair trial in the United States on political charges. They have also said he would be a suicide risk if sent to the United States, where they say he could face 175 years in prison.
The pursuit of Assange was part of President Donald Trump’s “effective declaration of war on leakers and journalists”, they argued in court papers. “He was an obvious symbol of all that Trump condemned, having brought American war crimes to the attention of the world.”
Assange’s legal travails in Britain date to 2010, when he began fighting an attempt to extradite him to Sweden to answer questions about allegations of sexual assault, which have since been dropped. In June 2012, facing imminent extradition, he sought refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy.
He spent seven years holed up there. His partner, Stella Moris, revealed this year that he had fathered two children while inside the embassy.
After Ecuador revoked his asylum, he was dragged out of the embassy in April 2019 and served a short British prison sentence for violating bail terms. He remains jailed pending the outcome of the U.S. extradition request.