Julian Assange could be sent to the US to face espionage charges ‘within weeks’ if he loses extradition bid – as WikiLeaks founder’s appeal enters its second day

Julian Assange could be sent to the US to face espionage charges within weeks, campaigners said yesterday as he began a final court battle to block his extradition.

Lawyers for the Wikileaks founder told the High Court that he faced a politically motivated prosecution in America which would amount to a ‘flagrant denial of justice’.

They claimed the espionage charges against him were an unprecedented attempt by Washington to ‘criminalise journalism’, in retaliation for Wikileaks’ publication of thousands of leaked documents relating to US conduct in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Assange could face a ‘grossly disproportionate’ possible 175-year jail sentence if convicted, and could even face the death penalty if further charges were brought, his lawyers said.

Donald Trump’s White House previously considered plans to kidnap or even murder the Wikileaks founder after a senior security official accused him of ‘waging cyber-war on the United States’, the court heard.

Assange, 52, is fighting extradition to the US where he faces charges of espionage and computer hacking over an alleged conspiracy to obtain and publish hundreds of thousands of leaked documents and diplomatic cables related to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

His lawyers said it had exposed ‘criminality on the part of the US government on an unprecedented scale’, including torture and war crimes, and claimed the US prosecution was effectively ‘state retaliation’.

This week’s appeal to the High Court is Assange’s final chance to convince the British courts to block the extradition.

Julian Assange gestures to the media from a police vehicle on his arrival at Westminster Magistrates’ Court on April 11, 2019

Stella Assange, the wife of Julian Assange, addresses supporters outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London

Stella Assange, the wife of Julian Assange, addresses supporters outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London

Supporters of Julian Assange demonstrate outside the Royal Courts of Justice on the first day of Assange's final appeal hearing

Supporters of Julian Assange demonstrate outside the Royal Courts of Justice on the first day of Assange’s final appeal hearing

If it fails he will be extradited within a month, unless his legal team can convince the European Court of Human Rights to intervene.

Australian-born Assange was given special permission to attend the two-day hearing, but his lawyers said he was too unwell to be in court, or even to watch proceedings via a video link.

He has been held in high-security Belmarsh prison for almost five years and previously spent seven years living inside the Ecuadorian embassy in Knightsbridge, West London.

His wife Stella Assange said his health had deteriorated during his time in prison. She addressed crowds of his supporters who gathered outside the High Court building, chanting ‘Free Julian Assange’.

She told them: ‘You’re here because the world is watching. They just cannot get away with this. Julian needs his freedom and we all need the truth.’

Referring to the Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who died in prison last week, she said: ‘What happened to Navalny can happen to Julian, and will happen to Julian if he is extradited.’

Lawyers for Assange told the court that Britain’s treaty with America meant it did not extradite people accused of political offences.

Edward Fitzgerald KC, for Assange, said: ‘We submit that the prosecution is politically motivated. Mr Assange was exposing serious state criminality and such exposure is a protected activity.’ He went on: ‘Mr Assange, we say, is being prosecuted for engaging in the ordinary journalistic practice of obtaining and publishing classified information, information that is both true and of obvious and important public interest.’ 

Police stand by as protesters in London demand Assange's release

Police stand by as protesters in London demand Assange’s release

Mr Fitzgerald said senior US officials had previously claimed Assange’s alleged activities amounted to treason, which can carry the death penalty.

Assange’s legal team asked judges to consider an alleged plot by the CIA to kidnap or kill Assange while he was inside the Ecuadorian embassy, which was allegedly overseen by ‘the highest levels’ of the Trump administration in 2017.

Mr Fitzgerald said the possible return of a Trump administration meant there was a renewed risk of ‘extrajudicial attack’ against Assange.

The Wikileaks founder could not have a fair trial in the US because of public comments about him by Mr Trump and other senior officials which meant any jurors would be ‘prejudiced irretrievably by public denunciations of him [Assange] made by the President downwards’, he told the court.

Former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo branded WikiLeaks ‘a non-state hostile intelligence service’, and Mr Trump has previously called for Assange to face the death penalty.

Assange has been fighting extradition for more than a decade. A district judge previously ruled he should not be sent to the US because of the risk he would commit suicide, but her decision was successfully challenged by US authorities.

They argue that he should stand trial in America over the Wikileaks publication of leaked documents in 2010, which they claim jeopardised ‘the strategic and national security interests of the US and put the safety of individuals at serious risk’.

The hearing continues.

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