ALMOST a decade after his WikiLeaks website enraged Washington by leaking secret US documents, a London court will begin hearings on Monday to decide whether Julian Assange should be extradited to the United States.
The 48-year-old is wanted by the United States on 18 criminal counts of conspiring to hack government computers and violating an espionage law and could spend decades in prison if convicted.
Jennifer Robinson, Assange’s lawyer, says his case could lead to criminalising activities crucial to investigative journalists and his work has shed an unprecedented light on how the United States conducted its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
‘We are talking about collateral murder, evidence of war crimes,’ she said. ‘They are a remarkable resource for those of us seeking to hold governments to account for abuses.’
Two Australian MPs who have visited Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in a high-security prison in London say he is undoubtedly being held as a ‘political prisoner’.
Tim Dawson, NEC member of the NUJ, said: ‘If his deportation to the United States is successful, the implications for media freedom are profound.
‘The US Espionage Act, offences against which Assange is charged, is little tested. Indeed, no journalist or publisher in the US has ever been successfully prosecuted for the act of publication.
‘Much of the legal process in this case also falls below minimum expectations of justice.
‘Assange has been denied regular access to his legal team. Meetings with his lawyers have been secretly recorded. He is in poor health, and, according to the UN’s special rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, he is the victim of psychological torture.
‘His successful deportation would significantly increase jeopardy of any reporter whose work touches on US security concerns. “Annoy the US government and you lay yourself open to a judicial snatch squad” would be the clear message to the media.’
He concluded: ‘Assange’s deportation has the most dramatic capacity to chill free speech.’
WikiLeaks published a classified US military video showing a 2007 attack by US Apache helicopters in Baghdad that killed a dozen people, including two Reuters news staff.
The hearing at London’s Woolwich Crown Court will not decide if Assange is guilty of any wrongdoing, but whether the extradition request meets the requirements set out under a 2003 UK-US treaty, which critics say is stacked in favour of the United States.
The case will get under way next week. It is scheduled to be postponed until May 18 when it will resume for a further three weeks to allow both sides more time to gather evidence.