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UK: Julian Assange’s lawyers: US files were leaked for political ends

Thursday 27 February 2020, by siawi3


Julian Assange’s lawyers: US files were leaked for political ends

Legal team say treaty prevents extradition of WikiLeaks founder for political offences

Frances Perraudin

Thu 27 Feb 2020 17.21 GMT
Last modified on Thu 27 Feb 2020 18.35 GMT

Julian Assange supporters protest outside Woolwich crown court in London. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

Julian Assange’s legal team has rejected a suggestion by lawyers for US authorities that his actions were not “political offences”, arguing that the WikiLeaks founder had published classified documents to highlight human rights abuses.

On the fourth day of Assange’s extradition hearing in London, before proceedings were adjourned until May, his barrister, Edward Fitzgerald QC, said the motives for publishing confidential information about Guantánamo Bay and the actions of the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan were political.

Assange faces 18 charges in the US of attempted hacking and breaches of the Espionage Act over the publication of classified US cables a decade ago. His defence argues that he should be protected from extradition because the US-UK treaty rules it out for political offences.

James Lewis QC, a barrister for the US authorities, argued earlier on Thursday that Assange’s actions were not inherently political as they did not have the direct purpose of overthrowing the US government or changing US government policy. “Any bare assertion that WikiLeaks was engaged in a struggle with the US government ... needs to be examined far more,” he told Woolwich crown court.

Fitzgerald responded that Assange didn’t only seek to change US government policy, but that he succeeded. “WikiLeaks didn’t just seek to induce change, it did induce change,” he said, referring to the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.

“What other purpose can there be publishing the Apache helicopter strike [video, showing the killing of 12 people] and [US] rules of engagement than to show that the war was being waged in a way that conflicted with fundamental human rights?

“What other point can there be to releasing the Guantánamo Bay files than to induce a government change of policy? And the same for revealing civilian deaths in the Iraq war – [it] was to induce a change in government policy.’’

Assange is accused of working with the former US army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to leak hundreds of thousands of classified documents, which the US authorities say put the lives of their informants in danger.

The extradition hearing began on Monday. After an initial week of legal argument, the proceedings were adjourned and will continue with three weeks of evidence scheduled to begin on 18 May.

Assange’s lawyers are expected to call a former employee of a Spanish security company to give evidence. The person claims surveillance was carried out on Assange while he was living in Ecuador’s London embassy, on behalf of the US, and that conversations had turned to potentially kidnapping or poisoning him.

Assange complained on Wednesday that he was unable to communicate with his lawyers from his position in the dock. “I am as much a participant in these proceedings as I am watching Wimbledon,” he said.

Mark Summers QC argued on Thursday that his client should be allowed to sit with his lawyers during May’s hearings. He said that secure docks – in which defendants sit behind bulletproof glass – were a relatively recent phenomenon in English courts and had been criticised for their impact on a fair trial.

During Summers’s submissions, Assange twice stood up to try to communicate with his lawyers, but wasn’t immediately noticed. “That is exactly the problem. You see when I’m worried about something,” he said.

The judge, Vanessa Baraitser, rejected the argument, saying Assange should tell the court if he was struggling to hear. She told Assange it had been clear over the previous few days that he had had no difficulty attracting the attention of his legal team and communicating with them via notes.

Assange has been on remand in Belmarsh prison since last September after serving a 50-week jail sentence for breaching his bail conditions by taking refuge in Ecuador’s London embassy in 2012. He did so to avoid extradition to Sweden over sexual assault allegations.