A British court will consider this week whether Julian Assange, founder of the Wikileaks website, can be extradited to the United States on charges of hacking and theft. The two-day hearing began Wednesday in London’s high court.
U.S. prosecutors appealed a British district court verdict from January, which ruled that Assange should not be extradited because it was possible he could commit suicide in a maximum-security U.S. prison.
That premise will be challenged by prosecutors, said lawyer Nick Vamos, a former head of extradition at Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service, now a partner at London-based law firm Peters & Peters.
“What the U.S. government (has) now done is come forward with a specific assurance about exactly how, where and in what condition he will be detained. So, provided his medical condition and his risk of suicide hasn’t changed, then you would assume that the U.S. government (has) met the test that the district judge in the first judgment set them,” Vamos told VOA.
Other developments since the January ruling could affect the case. Sigurdur Thordarson, a former Wikileaks insider-turned-FBI informant, has said he fabricated evidence used by the prosecution.
Meanwhile last month, Yahoo News published a story alleging the CIA plotted to kidnap or even kill Assange in 2017 when he sought asylum at the Ecuadorean embassy in London. Yahoo said the story was based on interviews with 30 former U.S. intelligence and national security officials.
Vamos said the defense will claim there is political motivation behind the extradition request.
“It will be argued that, well, if the CIA were willing to assassinate him — that’s one arm of the U.S. government — then really, you can’t trust the other arm of the U.S. government, the Department of Justice, to act fairly and to prosecute him in accordance with human rights standards and what we would consider to be a fair trial,” he said.
The CIA and U.S. lawyers leading the extradition appeal have yet to comment on the Yahoo story. Former CIA director and former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told The Megyn Kelly Show podcast in September that all actions taken were "consistent with U.S. law.”
“We desperately wanted to hold accountable those individuals that had violated U.S. law, that had violated requirements to protect information and had tried to steal it. There is a deep legal framework to do that. And we took actions consistent with U.S. law to try to achieve that,” Pompeo said.
In 2010 and 2011, Assange oversaw the publication by Wikileaks of tens of thousands of diplomatic cables and military reports relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said the leaks exposed abuses by the U.S. military.
Assange sought refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London in 2012 after facing accusations of rape in Sweden, a case that was later dropped. He stayed there for seven years until Ecuador allowed British police to arrest him in April 2019. He was then jailed for 50 weeks for breaching bail.
Now 50, he is currently being held in Belmarsh prison in London, as he is considered a flight risk.
Experts say the extradition case raises vital questions about freedom of the press.
“There is the huge, huge issue of global media freedom and the way that this case could set a terrible precedent for any journalist, any publisher, trying to expose the misdeeds and wrongdoing of government, so that government can be held accountable,” Julia Hall of Amnesty International said in an interview with VOA.
Assange faces 18 U.S. federal charges relating to allegations of hacking, theft of classified material and the disclosure of the identities of U.S. informants, which prosecutors say put the informants’ lives at risk.
A verdict on the extradition appeal will likely take several weeks. Whoever loses can appeal the decision to Britain’s Supreme Court, which could take several years. However, Supreme Court judges may rule against considering the case, Vamos said.
“It has to be on a point of law of general public importance. The Supreme Court doesn’t hear factual disputes and doesn’t hear arguments that have been settled well before in lower courts,” he told VOA.