WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange’s US extradition hearing in London has been delayed, potentially to November, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
A hearing, held by video link at Westminster Magistrates Court on Monday, upheld Assange’s team’s appeal that the case must be postponed.
This could be until as late as November 2nd, the earliest date where three consecutive weeks are available.
The prosecution supported the defence’s appeal that it is ‘oppressive under the circumstances to require Mr Assange’ to come to the courtroom while Britain is locked down.
Judge Vanessa Baraitser has ruled that both Assange and lawyers for the defence and prosecution should be ‘physically present’ in the court for the trial.
The planned hearing for May 18 has been vacated and the court will reconvene in a week to set a date.
Assange’s legal team appealed last month for the Australian-born journalist to be released on bail because Covid-19 is sweeping through UK prisons with over 2,000 cases reported so far – but their application was denied.
Assange remains languishing in Belmarsh High Security prison where his already seriously deteriorating health puts him at even greater risk of dying should he catch corona.
He appeared in such poor health when in court last October that 60 doctors wrote an open letter to Home Secretary Priti Patel calling for him to be moved from Belmarsh Prison to a hospital.
His legal team remain concerned for his well-being.
Assange is wanted by the US government for publishing classified military and diplomatic files that proved deeply embarrassing to Washington in 2010.
If convicted, he faces up to 175 years in prison.
‘The US’s request to extradite and prosecute Julian Assange sets a dangerous precedent,’ the founder of the online journal, The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald, insists, warning that it puts journalists around the world in danger.
The most ‘amazing’ fact about Assange’s case, as far as Greenwald is concerned, is that the US government is seeking to charge him for violating the Espionage Act.
But the WikiLeaks founder ‘is not an American citizen, he never worked with a media outlet in the United States, (and) none of the alleged crimes he committed took place on American soil,’ he said.
If Assange is successfully extradited to the US, Greenwald predicts this will prove the country has the right to ‘reach over and grab’ someone ‘anywhere in the world’ reporting things they don’t like.
Even though the outcome of Assange’s case will have major effects on the state of journalism in the US and around the world, it has received little attention from the mainstream media.
This, Greenwald says, is due to Assange being politically unaffiliated.
‘The US media doesn’t see Julian Assange as one of them and, therefore, there’s almost no coverage of his case,’ he said.
The WikiLeaks founder even managed to anger both the Obama and Trump administrations with unflattering reporting, but Greenwald says it was Trump’s administration that created a narrative villainising Assange.
‘They just created a theory that said that Assange worked with his source, Chelsea Manning, to do more than just receive information, that he actually tried to help her evade getting caught.
‘However, any protection of Manning, comes down to journalistic ethics’ he continued.
‘The reality is that journalists all over the world help their sources not to get caught.
‘If you go to the New York Times or the Washington Post (websites), you will find a page with instructions to their sources, “Here’s how you can leak information to us without getting caught.”
‘It’s not just the right, but the duty of journalists to help their sources to stay safe,’ said Greenwald.
‘What they’re now trying to do is turn that into a crime by saying that if you work … to keep your source safe, you become part of a criminal conspiracy.
‘And that’s why the prosecution by the Trump administration of Julian Assange is so dangerous.’
Manning, once a source of Assange’s, was held in contempt of court in Alexandria, Virginia, for refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating the WikiLeaks founder. She was released from custody last month.
She previously spent seven years in military prison for leaking classified information to Assange, but had her sentence commuted by former President Barack Obama just before he left office.
‘The US media spent three years flamboyantly proclaiming their devotion to protect press freedoms, yet now ignore what is, by far, the greatest Trump-era threat posed to a free press: the Trump DoJ’s (Department of Justice’s) prosecution and attempted extradition of Julian Assange,’ Greenwald tweeted.
He then singled out the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Executive Editor at The Washington Post Marty Baron as among the few voices in US media daring to raise their heads above the parapet and cry foul over the attempted extradition of Assange from the UK to the US, for exposing gross abuses of power and potential war crimes by the US military in its so-called ‘War on Terror’ in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
Responding to claims that Assange had ‘offended Hillary’ and that this was why he had been abandoned by the US media establishment, Greenwald responded that it was, in fact, Jeff Sessions and Mike Pompeo that were behind Assange’s ongoing persecution, neither of whom could be considered a friend to Hillary Clinton.
Theorising as to the apparent indifference to Assange’s plight, Greenwald suggested that ‘they hate Assange because of what he did in 2016 in reporting on Hillary and either don’t care if he is imprisoned or want that to happen.’
- On 27th March, Doctors4Assange issued the following statement: ‘Doctors4Assange strongly condemns Wednesday’s decision by UK District Judge Vanessa Baraitser to deny bail to Julian Assange.
‘Despite our prior unequivocal statement that Mr Assange is at increased risk of serious illness and death were he to contract coronavirus, and the evidence of medical experts, Baraitser dismissed the risk, citing UK guidelines for prisons in responding to the global pandemic: “I have no reason not to trust this advice as both evidence-based and reliable and appropriate”.
‘Notably, however, Baraitser did not address the increased risk to Mr Assange relative to the general UK prison population, let alone prisoners at HMP Belmarsh where Assange is incarcerated.
‘Nor did she address the rapidly emerging medical and legal consensus that vulnerable and low-risk prisoners should be released, immediately.
‘As the court heard, Mr Assange is at increased risk of contracting and dying from the novel disease coronavirus (Covid-19), a development which has led the World Health Organisation to declare a public health emergency of international concern and a global pandemic.
‘The reasons for Mr Assange’s increased risk include his ongoing psychological torture, his history of medical neglect and fragile health, and chronic lung disease.
‘Edward Fitzgerald, QC, representing Mr Assange, said: “These (medical) experts consider that he is particularly at risk of developing coronavirus and, if he does, that it develops into very severe complications for him… If he does develop critical symptoms it would be very doubtful that Belmarsh would be able to cope with his condition.”
‘Baraitser’s casual dismissal of Mr Assange’s dire situation in the face of the Covid-19 emergency stood in stark contrast not only to the expert medical evidence, but the proceedings themselves. The hearing took place on the third day of the UK’s coronavirus lock-down.
‘Of the two counsels representing Mr Assange, Edward Fitzgerald QC wore a facemask and Mark Summers QC participated via audiolink. US attorneys joined the proceedings by phone.
‘Mr Assange himself appeared by videolink, which was terminated after around an hour, rendering him unable to follow the remainder of his own hearing, including the defence summation and the District Judge’s ruling.
‘Mr Assange’s supporters attending in person observed social distancing measures. Overall only 15 people were in attendance, including judge, counsel, and observers.
‘Baraitser further erred by stating that because no prisoners at HMP Belmarsh currently have coronavirus, Assange was not yet at risk. Mr Assange’s counsel noted, in contrast, that they had difficulty visiting him after being told by Belmarsh staff that over 100 Belmarsh employees are currently “self-isolating”.
‘Furthermore, it is unclear whether any Belmarsh prisoners have even been tested for coronavirus …
‘Kristinn Hrafnsson, editor in chief of WikiLeaks, summarised Baraitser’s decision in a manner consistent with the overwhelming medical and legal consensus, and long held-medical ethics: “To expose another human being to serious illness, and to the threat of losing their life, is grotesque and quite unnecessary. This is not justice, it is a barbaric decision”.’