London: “No.” With one word, Australian-born WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange resumed his high-stakes legal battle against the US government, which is trying to have him extradited.
He faces a jail term of up to 175 years in the US over the publication of secret US intelligence and military documents.
Assange, who is being held on remand at Belmarsh prison after being refused bail in March, appeared at his hearing at the Old Bailey in London on Monday with his white hair neatly cut and wearing a dark suit.
His clean-cut appearance marked a stark contrast from his dishevelled appearance when he was arrested at the Ecuadorian embassy in Knightsbridge — his political refuge for 6½ years — in April 2019 and dragged into a prison van.
After confirming his name and date of birth, the 49-year-old was asked if he was prepared to consent to be extradited to the US. Assange paused before answering: “No.”
Supporters, including his partner Stella Morris and fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, were among those who gathered outside the court, claiming that his arrest was politically motivated.
Assange’s lawyers will argue that his prosecution would criminalise the application of ordinary journalistic methods to publish information in the public interest.
“Journalists and whistleblowers who reveal illegal activity by companies or governments and war crimes — such as the publications Julian has been charged for — should be protected from prosecution,” Assange’s attorney Jennifer Robinson said.
Assange has been indicted on 18 espionage and computer misuse charges over secret US military documents WikiLeaks published over a decade ago.
Among the files released by WikiLeaks was a video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack by American forces in Baghdad that killed 11 people, including two Reuters journalists.
US authorities allege that Assange conspired with US army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to 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 also say he conspired with members of hacking organisations and sought to recruit hackers to provide WikiLeaks with classified information.
Assange’s trial has been delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic and is expected to run until October 2.
The first hour of the hearing was spent on “housekeeping” matters, including the procedures for dozens of journalists given unprecedented access to the court hearing via video link as a result of social distancing requirements.
Assange’s silk, Edward Fitzgerald, requested to spend an hour with his client, saying it was the first time he had seen him in six months.
Just one witness was expected to give evidence to the court on the first day.
By Latika Bourke – SMH