LONDON - The U.S. government began outlining its extradition case against Julian Assange in a London court on Monday, arguing that the WikiLeaks founder is not a free-speech champion but an "ordinary" criminal who put many lives at risk with his secret-spilling.
U.S. authorities want to try Assange on espionage charges that carry a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison over the 2010 publication of hundreds of thousands of secret military documents and diplomatic cables. Assange argues he was acting as a journalist entitled to First Amendment protection.
Lawyer James Lewis, representing the U.S. government, called WikiLeaks' 2010 document deluge "one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States."
"Reporting or journalism is not an excuse for criminal activities or a license to break ordinary criminal laws," he said.
Dozens of Assange supporters protested outside the high-security courthouse,chanting and setting off a horn as District Judge Vanessa Baraitser began hearing the case. Just before the lunch break, Assange complained that he was having difficulty concentrating and called the noise from outside "not helpful."
Assange, 48, watched proceedings from the dock in the courtroom at Woolwich Crown Court — brought there from Belmarsh Prison next door, where he has been imprisoned for 10 months. He spoke to confirm his name and date ofbirth. He nodded towards reporters before taking his seat.
The extradition hearing follows years of subterfuge, diplomatic dispute and legal drama that have led the Australian computer expert from fame as an international secret-spiller through self-imposed exile inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to incarceration in a maximum-security British prison.
Assange has been indicted in the U.S. on 18 charges over the publication of classified documents. Prosecutors say he conspired with U.S. army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to crack a password and hack into a Pentagon computer and release secret diplomatic cables and military files on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Assange says the leaked documents exposed U.S. military wrongdoing. Among the files published by WikiLeaks was video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack by American forces in Baghdad that killed 11 people, including two Reuters journalists.
But Lewis said Assange was guilty of "straightforward" criminal activity in trying to hack the computer. And he said WikiLeaks' activities created a "grave and imminent risk" to U.S. intelligence sources in war zones, who were named in the documents.
"What Mr. Assange seeks to defend by free speech is not the publication of the classified materials, but he seeks to defend the publication of sources — the names of people who put themselves at risk to assist the U.S. and its allies,`` the lawyer said.
Lewis said some informants who had been assisting the Americans had to be relocated after the leak, and others "subsequently disappeared."
He said it wasn't the role of the British court to determine whether Assange was guilty.
"This is an extradition hearing, not a trial," he said. "The guilt or innocence of Mr. Assange will be determined at trial in the United States, not in this court."
Journalism organizations and civil liberties groups including Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders say the charges against Assange set a chilling precedent for freedom of the press.
Among the supporters outside court was fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, who wore a headband with the word "angel" on it and said she was "the angel of democracy."
"It is not a crime to publish American war crimes," she said. "It's in the public interest, it is democracy, that he is allowed to do this."
Assange's legal saga began in 2010, when he was arrested in London at the request of Sweden, which wanted to question him about allegations of rape and sexual assault made by two women. He refused to go to Stockholm, saying he feared extradition or illegal rendition to the United States or the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In 2012, Assange sought refuge inside the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he was beyond the reach of U.K. and Swedish authorities.
For seven years Assange led an isolated and increasingly surreal existence in the tiny embassy, which occupies an apartment in an upscale block near the ritzy Harrod's department store. The relationship between Assange and his hosts eventually soured, and he was evicted in April 2019. British police immediately arrested him for jumping bail in 2012.
Sweden dropped the sex crimes investigations in November because so much time had elapsed, but Assange remains in London's Belmarsh Prison as he awaits a decision on the U.S. extradition request.
For his supporters around the world, Assange remains a hero. But many others are critical of the way WikiLeaks has published classified documents without redacting details that could endanger individuals. WikiLeaks has also been accused of serving as a conduit for Russian misinformation, and Assange has alienated some supporters by dallying with populist politicians including Brexit-promoter Nigel Farage.
An end to the saga could still be years away. After a week of opening arguments, the extradition case is due to break until May, when the two sides will lay out their evidence. The judge isn't expected to rule until several months after that, with the losing side likely to appeal.
If the courts approve extradition, the British government will have the final say.
The case comes at delicate time for trans-Atlantic relations. The U.K. has left the European Union and is keen to strike a trade deal with the U.S.