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UK: Adjournment of Julian Assange’s US extradition hearing till November

Monday 27 April 2020, by siawi3


Julian Assange’s Extradition Trial Delayed by Coronavirus

By Ellen Milligan

27 avril 2020 à 12:24 UTC+2
Updated on 27 avril 2020 à 13:17 UTC+2

Much-awaited trial could be postponed until November
Lawyers haven’t had access to ‘unwell’ Assange in prison

Supporters of Julian Assange hold placards outside a magistrates court in London on Feb. 25.
Photographer: Matt Dunham/AP Photos

Julian Assange’s extradition trial, set to begin next month, has been delayed amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The three-week trial was due to begin May 18 in London, but was postponed until July or even November, because of the extension of the U.K. lockdown.

Assange faces extradition to America on charges that he conspired to disclose documents passed to him by former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. The 48-year-old has been in a London jail for a year since he was kicked out of the Ecuadorian embassy where he was hiding from Swedish sexual-assault allegations.

His lawyer, Edward Fitzgerald, said that trial preparations have been hamstrung by a prison ban on visitors during the lockdown.

If the hearing went ahead in May, Assange would “be facing a David and Goliath battle with his hands behind his back,” Fitzgerald said.

The delayed proceedings will actually be the second tranche of a four-week trial. The first week, in February, focused on legal arguments, while the remaining section will look at evidence, including the cross-examination of witnesses.

The U.K. extended lockdown by at least three weeks April 16. All non-urgent cases at Magistrates courts have been postponed and ongoing matters have been held via video link or teleconference.

The Australian didn’t participate by video-link Monday as he was unwell, Fitzgerald told the court. Lawyers for the U.S. government agreed the case should be delayed.

The courts are grappling with proceedings while adhering to strict rules imposed by the government. At Monday’s hearing, Assange’s lawyer couldn’t be heard and the judge’s clerk had to repeat everything he said for the other participants.

The new trial date will be decided at a hearing May 4. The only available court date for three consecutive weeks is in November, but the case can be heard in July for two weeks, with the final week fit in later, Judge Vanessa Baraitser said.

(Updates with details from fifth paragraph)



April 27, 2020

UK: Adjournment of Julian Assange’s US extradition hearing considered amidst coronavirus concerns

by Reporters Sans Frontières

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange’s legal team has requested adjournment of his US extradition hearing to allow for adequate preparation of his defence, amidst concerns for his health as COVID-19 reportedly spreads at Belmarsh prison. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reiterates the need for Assange’s immediate release before his health is further jeopardised, and calls for the extradition hearing to be postponed until lockdown conditions are lifted.

On 27 April, a hearing took place at Westminster Magistrates’ Court to consider the application of Julian Assange’s legal team to adjourn his US extradition hearing. The full hearing had been scheduled to resume on 18 May, when three weeks of evidence were expected to be heard, following the presentation of legal arguments in February.

District judge Vanessa Baraitser presided, and was joined in the courtroom by legal counsel. Assange was expected to attend via videolink, but he did not take part, and his lawyer Edward Fitzgerland QC reported that he had received medical advice that it would not be safe for him to be taken to the video room at Belmarsh prison. Assange also did not participate in the last hearing on 7 April, as his lawyers reported he was unwell.

“We are alarmed by the continued disregard for Julian Assange’s health, particularly now with the added risk of his being exposed to coronavirus in detention. He should be immediately released before his health is further jeopardised, and the court must ensure that he is able to participate fully in future hearings”, said RSF UK Bureau Director Rebecca Vincent.

The defence argued for adjournment of the full extradition hearing to allow for sufficient time to adequately prepare Assange’s defence, noting that his lawyers did not currently have access to him in prison, and could not fulfill their professional obligations to him in these circumstances. They also sought to ensure his participation in proceedings, and to allow for open justice through ensuring access to the press and other observers.

The judge acknowledged that in light of the continued coronavirus lockdown, the scheduled 18 May date for the resumption of the full extradition hearing would be “uncertain at best”. She agreed to vacate that date, and scheduled an administrative hearing on 4 May to set a date to resume the full hearing. She noted that the next period the Woolwich Crown Court would be available for three consecutive weeks would be starting 2 November.

RSF observed the fifty-minute hearing via teleconference, which was also the access option provided to the media. The telephone connection did not allow for adequate monitoring of the hearing, which was difficult to hear — an issue which required the judge’s attention and interrupted proceedings.

“Today’s experience attempting to remotely observe proceedings in Julian Assange’s case was extremely frustrating, and shows that resuming the full extradition hearing in such conditions would not allow for open justice. This case is of tremendous public interest, and the press and NGO observers must be able to scrutinise proceedings. We call for the full hearing to be postponed until lockdown conditions are lifted”, said Vincent.

Assange’s legal team had previously applied for his release on bail due to health concerns, as his pre-existing medical conditions could make him more susceptible to contracting coronavirus. Judge Baraitser denied the bail application on 25 March. COVID-19 is now reportedly spreading in Belmarsh prison, where one inmate has so far been reported to have died from the virus.

The UK is ranked 35th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index, having dropped two places since 2019, in part due to Assange’s disproportionate sentencing for breaking bail, and his continued detention.