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US to Lay Out Case Against Assange     02/23 09:47

   LONDON (AP) -- The U.S. government and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will 
face off Monday in a high-security London courthouse, a decade after WikiLeaks 
infuriated American officials by publishing a trove of classified military 
documents.

   A judge at Woolwich Crown Court will begin hearing arguments from lawyers 
for U.S. authorities, who want to try Assange on espionage charges that carry a 
maximum sentence of 175 years in prison.

   The extradition hearing follows years of subterfuge, diplomatic dispute and 
legal drama that have led the 48-year-old Australian from fame as an 
international secret-spiller through self-imposed exile inside the Ecuadorian 
Embassy in London to incarceration in a maximum-security British prison.

   Assange has been indicted in the U.S. on 18 charges over the publication of 
classified documents. Prosecutors say he conspired with U.S. 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.

   U.S. authorities say WikiLeaks' activities put American lives in danger. 
Assange argues he was acting as a journalist entitled to First Amendment 
protection, and says the leaked documents exposed U.S. military wrongdoing. 
Among the files published by WikiLeaks was video of a 2007 Apache helicopter 
attack by American forces in Baghdad that killed 11 people, including two 
Reuters journalists.

   Journalism organizations and civil liberties groups including Amnesty 
International and Reporters Without Borders say the charges against Assange set 
a chilling precedent for freedom of the press.

   "What we have is an assault on journalism," left-wing Greek lawmaker Yanis 
Varoufakis said at an Assange support march in London on Saturday. "The only 
charge against Julian, hiding behind the nonsense of espionage, is a charge of 
journalism."

   Assange's legal saga began in 2010, when he was arrested in London at the 
request of Sweden, which wanted to question him about allegations of rape and 
sexual assault made by two women. He refused to go to Stockholm, saying he 
feared extradition or illegal rendition to the United States or the U.S. prison 
camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

   In 2012, Assange sought refuge inside the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he was 
beyond the reach of U.K. and Swedish authorities.

   For seven years Assange led an isolated and increasingly surreal existence 
in the tiny embassy, which occupies an apartment in an upscale block near the 
ritzy Harrod's department store. Confined to the building, he occasionally 
emerged onto a small balcony to address supporters, and received visits from 
celebrity allies including Lady Gaga and "Baywatch" actress Pamela Anderson.

   The relationship between Assange and his hosts eventually soured, and he was 
evicted in April 2019. British police immediately arrested him for jumping bail 
in 2012.

   Sweden dropped the sex crimes investigations in November because so much 
time had elapsed, but Assange remains in London's Belmarsh Prison as he awaits 
a decision on the U.S. extradition request.

   Supporters say the ordeal has harmed Assange's physical and mental health, 
leaving him with depression, dental problems and a serious shoulder ailment.

   For his supporters around the world, Assange remains a hero. But many others 
are critical of the way WikiLeaks has published classified documents without 
redacting details that could endanger individuals. WikiLeaks has also been 
accused of serving as a conduit for Russian misinformation, and Assange has 
alienated some supporters by dallying with populist politicians including 
Brexit-promoter Nigel Farage.

   Assange's legal team insists the American case against him is politically 
motivated. His lawyers say they will present evidence that the Australian was 
offered a pardon by the Trump administration if he agreed to say Russia wasn't 
involved in leaking Democratic National Committee emails that were published by 
WikiLeaks during the 2016 U.S. election campaign.

   Assange's lawyers say the offer was made in August 2017 by then-Republican 
Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, who claimed to be acting on behalf of President 
Donald Trump.

   The White House has called the claim "a complete fabrication and a total 
lie." Rohrabacher acknowledges discussing the Democrat leak with Assange, but 
denies offering a pardon from the president.

   An end to the saga could still be years away. After a week of opening 
arguments, the extradition case is due to break until May, when the two sides 
will lay out their evidence. The judge is not expected to rule until several 
months after that, with the losing side likely to appeal.

   If the courts approve extradition, the British government will have the 
final say. 

   The case comes at delicate time for trans-Atlantic relations. The U.K. has 
left the European Union and is keen to strike a trade deal with the U.S. 

   But relations between Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative government 
and the Trump administration have been strained by Britain's decision to defy 
Washington and grant Chinese firm Huawei a role in building the U.K.'s telecoms 
infrastructure.

   Anand Doobay, an extradition lawyer at the firm Boutique Law, said the 
Assange saga was an unusual, hard-to-predict case.

   "Very few cases raise this range of issues, where there are likely to be 
arguments about the actual offenses he's accused of committing and whether they 
amount to a crime in both countries," he said. "There are arguments about his 
treatment in terms of the fairness of his trial, the conditions he's going to 
be detained in, the reasons why he is being prosecuted, his activities as a 
journalist."


(KR)

 
 
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