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WikiLeaks’ Assange in last-ditch battle to stop US extradition

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was targeted by the U.S. over his exposure of state-level crimes, and Donald Trump had requested options on how to deal with him, his lawyers said on Tuesday as they battle to stop his extradition from Britain.

U.S. prosecutors are seeking to put Assange, 52, on trial on 18 counts relating to WikiLeaks’ high-profile release of vast troves of confidential U.S. military records and diplomatic cables.

They argue the leaks imperilled the lives of their agents and there is no excuse for his criminality. Assange‘s supporters hail him as an anti-establishment hero and a journalist, who is being persecuted for exposing U.S. wrongdoing.

At the start of what could be his last chance to stop his extradition from Britain to the United States at London’s High Court, Assange‘s lawyers and wife said the case was politically motivated and an attack on all journalists.

Stella Assange likened his case to that of Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition activist who died in prison on Friday while serving a three-decade sentence.

“Julian is a political prisoner and his life is at risk. What happened to Navalny can happen to Julian,” she told reporters outside court where a large crowd called for his release. Assange himself was not in court nor watching remotely because he was unwell.

The Australian’s legal battles began in 2010, and he subsequently spent seven years holed up in Ecuador’s embassy in London before he was dragged out and jailed in 2019 for breaching bail conditions.

He has been held in a maximum-security jail in London ever since, even getting married therewhile Britain finally approved his extradition to the U.S. in 2022.

His legal team is trying to overturn that approval at a two-day hearingTheir argument is that previous judges failed to address their case that the extradition was politically-motivated and a deliberate attempt to punish and silence him for exposing U.S. “state-level crimes”.

“Mr Assange is being prosecuted for engaging in ordinary journalistic practices of obtaining and publishing classified information which is true and of public interest,” Edward Fitzgerald, Assange‘s lead lawyer, told the court.

He said, if convicted, Assange could be given a sentence as long as 175 years, but likely to be at least 30 to 40 years.

His colleague Mark Summers said there was evidence there had been a “truly breathtaking plan” to kidnap or murder Assange while he was in the Ecuadorean embassy, and former U.S. President Trump had asked for “detailed options” to kill him.

In 2021, Yahoo News reported CIA officials had drawn up options for Trump’s administration for dealing with Assange while he was in the London embassy.

“Senior CIA officials requested plans, the president himself requested on being provided with options on how to do it and sketches were even drawn up,” the lawyer said on Tuesday.

 

U.S. SAYS CASE MISREPRESENTED

In their written submissions, lawyers for the U.S. said their case against him was “consistently and repeatedly misrepresented” by Assange‘s legal team.

They said he was not being prosecuted for publication of the leaked materials, but for aiding and conspiring with former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to unlawfully obtain them, then disclosing names of sources and “putting those individuals at grave risk of harm”.

If Assange wins this case, a full appeal hearing will be held to again consider his challenge. If he loses, his only remaining option would be at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and Stella Assange said his lawyers would apply to the European judges for an emergency injunction if necessary.

WikiLeaks first came to prominence in 2010 when it 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.

It then released thousands of secret classified files and diplomatic cables that laid bare often highly critical U.S. appraisals of world leaders from Russian President Vladimir Putin to members of the Saudi royal family.

Assange‘s supporters include Amnesty International, media groups and politicians including Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who last week voted in favour of a motion calling for his return to Australia.


EXPLAINER:

Who is Julian Assange
Assange was born in Townsville, Australia, in July 1971, to parents who were involved in theatre and travelled frequently.

In his teens, Assange gained a reputation as a sophisticated computer programmer and in 1995 he was arrested and pleaded guilty to hacking. He was fined, but avoided prison on condition he did not reoffend. In his late 20s, he went to Melbourne University to study mathematics and physics.

What is WIKILEAKS?
Assange launched WikiLeaks in 2006, creating a web-based “dead letter drop” for would-be leakers.

The website rose to prominence in April 2010 when it published a classified video showing a 2007 U.S. helicopter attack that killed a dozen people in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, including two Reuters news staff.

It released more than 90,000 classified U.S. military documents on the war in Afghanistan, and about 400,000 secret U.S. files on the Iraq war. The two leaks represented the largest security breaches of their kind in U.S. military history.

It followed these up with the release of 250,000 secret diplomatic cables from U.S. embassies around the world, with some of the information published by newspapers such as The New York Times and Britain’s Guardian.

The leaks angered and embarrassed U.S. politicians and military officials, who said the unauthorised dissemination put lives at risk.

Ex-Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning served seven years in a military prison for leaking hundreds of thousands of messages and cables to WikiLeaks, before being released on the order of President Barack Obama.

Arrest and start of legal battle
On Nov. 18, 2010, a Swedish court ordered Assange‘s detention as a result of an investigation into allegations of sex crimes made by two female Swedish WikiLeaks volunteers. On Dec. 7, 2010, Assange was arrested by British police on a European Arrest Warrant (EAW) issued by Sweden.

Assange denied the allegations and said from the outset that he believed the Swedish case was a pretext to extradite him to the United States to face charges over the WikiLeaks releases.

His extradition to Sweden for questioning was ordered in Feb. 2011 and his subsequent appeals failed. In June 2012, shortly after the UK Supreme Court rejected his final challenge, he entered the Ecuadorean Embassy in London seeking asylum.

Assange’s seven years in Ecuadorean Embassy
Ecuador granted Assange asylum on Aug. 16, 2012, with British police mounting a round-the-clock guard to prevent his escape, saying he would be arrested should he leave.

The impasse left Assange living in cramped quarters in the embassy. Swedish prosecutors dropped their investigation in 2017 but British police said he would still be arrested if he left the embassy over his earlier failure to surrender to bail.

During his time in the embassy he had two children with his partner Stella Moris.

Embassy impasse ends, US case begins
On April 11, 2019, a screaming Assange was carried out of the embassy and arrested after Ecuador revoked his political asylum.

The following month he was jailed for 50 weeks for breaching his bail conditions. In June 2019, the U.S. Justice Department formally asked Britain to extradite him to the United States to face 18 charges that he conspired to hack U.S. government computers and violated espionage laws.

Although Assange completed his prison sentence in September 2019, he remained in Belmarsh maximum security prison pending extradition hearings.

On Jan. 4, 2021, a British judge ruled Assange should not be extradited to the United States, saying his mental health problems meant he would be at risk of suicide.

However, the U.S. authorities won an appeal in December 2021 at London’s High Court against that decision, after giving a package of assurances about the conditions of Assange‘s detention if convicted, including a pledge he could be transferred to Australia to serve any sentence.

On March 23, 2022, Assange married his long-term partner Stella in Belmarsh.

Final legal battle?
In June 2022, Britain’s then Home Secretary (interior minister) Priti Patel approved the extradition, and last year a judge at London’s High Court turned down his request for an appeal.

At a two-day hearing starting on Tuesday in front of two senior judges, Assange‘s legal team will begin a final attempt to have the extradition decision reversed in the English courts.

If he succeeds, his case will go to a full appeal. If he loses, the only remaining block to his extradition lies with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) where he already has an application lodged and which could stop his extradition.

Should Assange be extradited, his supporters say he could be held in a U.S. high security jail and if convicted could face a 175 year prison sentence. U.S. prosecutors have said it would be no more than 63 months.

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