LONDON - A lawyer for Julian Assange complained Tuesday that the WikiLeaks founder was handcuffed 11 times, stripped naked twice and had court papers taken away on the first day of a hearing on his extradition to the United States.
Attorney Edward Fitzgerald told a judge that the treatment of Assange at London’s Belmarsh Prison “could be a contempt of this court.” The extradition hearing opened on Monday at Woolwich Crown Court, which is located next to the prison.
District Judge Vanessa Baraitser, who is hearing the case, said she had no power to act unless Assange became unable to participate in the proceedings, which are expected to last several months.
“If it comes to that, please let me know,” the judge said.
Assange is wanted in the U.S. on espionage charges over the leaking of classified government documents a decade ago.
U.S. prosecutors accuse Assange of conspiring with U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to crack a password, hack into a Pentagon computer and release hundreds of thousands of secret diplomatic cables and military files on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
They allege that WikiLeaks’ publication of the unedited documents put U.S. intelligence sources who were mentioned in them at risk of torture of death.
Assange says he was acting as a journalist entitled to First Amendment protection. His lawyers argue that the U.S. charges — which carry a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison — are a politically motivated abuse of power.
Defense lawyers also deny that Assange put lives at risk. Attorney Mark Summers said WikiLeaks initially worked with media outlets in 2010 to publish the trove of files in edited form.
He said that the following year Assange phoned the White House to warn that a password published in a book about WikiLeaks could allow people to view the full unredacted cache of documents. Summers said Assange had warned that “unless we do something, then people’s lives are put at risk.”
Assange has been jailed in England since April 2019, when he was evicted from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. He took refuge in the embassy seven years earlier to avoid being sent to Sweden over allegations of rape and sexual assault.
A British court handed him a 50-week sentence for jumping bail in 2012.
The extradition hearing is expected to continue for the rest of the week, then take a break before resuming in May.