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Julian Assange’s extradition hearing will go ahead next month amid coronavirus pandemic

Julian Assange’s extradition hearing will go ahead next month after his lawyer failed in his bid to postpone the case amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The Wikileaks founder, 48, is wanted in the US for allegedly conspiring with army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to expose military secrets between January and May 2010.

A US grand jury has indicted Assange on 18 charges – 17 of which fall under the Espionage Act – including conspiracy to receive, obtain and disclose classified diplomatic and military documents. 

Julian Assange, 48, pictured leaving Westminster Magistrates Court in London on January 13 this year. The Wikileaks founder’s extradition hearing will go ahead next month (file photo)

The Australian national did not appear at his hearing via video-link from HMP Belmarsh at Westminster Magistrates’ Court today.

Assange’s barrister Edward Fitzgerald QC said it was ‘wholly impossible’ to communicate with Assange amid the chaos and expressed concerns about the impact the virus would have on his mental health.

He asked for an adjournment to the extradition hearing scheduled for 18 May so key witnesses could be physically ‘seen and heard’ despite plans to have them appear via video-link.

The lawyer said Assange has been cut off from psychiatric treatment due to the self-isolating measures imposed within HMP Belmarsh.

But District Judge Vanessa Baraitser said video-link appearances are ‘routinely made’ in court.

The judge said there was a strong public interest in the case and the witness statements should be heard openly where possible.

Arguing for an adjournment to the May hearings, Mr Fitzgerald said: ‘The threat he is at present under in light of the current circumstances in Belmarsh and his vulnerability means he could not participate in a full evidentiary hearing.

‘Really the basic point is we have not been able to have any reasonable communication with him at present. We can’t have access to him physically in prison we can’t have access by video-link and sending correspondence to him means very, very long delays and sometimes doesn’t get to him.

‘There’s a long history of inadequate access to him even before Covid-19. The government restrictions in these grave times mean we haven’t been able to take details from numerous witnesses in this country, in the US, Germany and further afield.

‘It is wholly impossible to inform him of the product of the work we are doing. Staff are in short supply.

‘Although the coronavirus has affected possibilities by video link the problem whether he may be able to hear and see what is going on in court.

‘If there are witnesses being heard by video-link that simply would not be possible. He would not be able to hear and see all that went on in court.

Westminster Magistrates Court (pictured). The judge said there was a strong public interest in the case and the witness statements should be heard openly where possible (file photo)

Westminster Magistrates Court (pictured). The judge said there was a strong public interest in the case and the witness statements should be heard openly where possible (file photo)

‘That’s even assuming his lawyers can be in court and we can all be in the same building. He simply would not have a fair hearing.

‘A telephone hearing is ruled out because he needs to be able to hear and see what is going on and to be seen and heard.

‘Then there are the effects of the pandemic on the defendant himself. You’re aware that he has well documented problems of clinical depression.

‘He had previously had treatment for that but his therapy sessions cannot go on nor can visits from his family.

‘In those circumstances with the physically dangerous environment and with his psychiatric care being reduced we submit it would be unjust for him (to have a full evidentiary hearing).’

Judge Baraitser said: ‘The defence are applying to adjourn the hearing. 18 May is still five weeks away and the global picture is likely to be very different then.

‘This is an unpredictable situation but I cannot assume courts won’t be operating normally then.

‘In relation to extradition hearings at this courthouse these are expected to resume from 20 April with the requested persons attending the hearings in person.

‘With this in mind it is my current intention to hear as much of this case as possible in May. Mr Assange is in custody and there is some real urgency in this case being heard.

‘The use of video-link for witnesses is routinely made and it would be entirely appropriate for these witnesses to use the video link to give their evidence.’

Judge Baraitser said Assange’s partner’s statement was relied upon to prevent his extradition by showing his family ties to the UK.

The judge said: ‘It was not clear how disclosure of her name would have an impact on the proceedings.

‘Her statement was relied upon to demonstrate community ties to this jurisdiction for him to stay here with his partner and children.

‘My starting point is that there is a strong public interest in full and contemporaneous reporting in extradition proceedings. It is for the parties seeking to derogate from open justice to provide clear and cogent evidence.’

Assange went into hiding in the Ecuadorian embassy in London in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden for sexual offence allegations dating back to 2010 which he has always denied.

In November Swedish authorities dropped the rape allegations but he was jailed for 50 weeks last April after breaching his bail conditions when the asylum period granted to him expired. 

Meanwhile, a claim that US agencies expressed an interest in testing DNA on nappies, when Assange’s partner and children visited him in the Ecuadorian embassy, was also aired in court.

A judge found that even if the allegation were true, there was no reason to believe US agencies meant harm to Assange’s young family.

Ms Baraitser referred to the claim as she had turned down a bid to grant Assange’s partner anonymity, during a hearing at Westminster Magistrates’ Court on Tuesday.

The court heard how the unnamed woman wished to lived “quietly” with her young children, away from the glare of publicity that Assange attracted.

Mr Fitzgerald had applied for the anonymity order after the woman made a statement in support of Assange’s earlier failed bail application.

Following a submission by the PA news agency via telephone conference to the court, Judge Baraitser ruled that the woman’s right to a private family life was outweighed by the need for open justice.

But the judge delayed making the woman’s identity public until 4pm on April 14, pending a possible judicial review at the High Court.