Julian Assange mirrored a broken figure as he faced his destiny in court on Monday. Clean-shaven and wearing a blue suit, he clutched a handful of papers as he made his way into court. Upon entering, his supporters – which included former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone and journalist, John Pilger - jammed into the public gallery. Some raised their fists above their heads in an act of solidarity and Assange, in turn, returned the gesture to the crowd.
In May, he was charged by the US with colluding with US Army whistleblower, Chelsea Manning, to hack into the Pentagon computers and share secret information under the Espionage Act. Assange faces up to 175 years in prison if he is extradited to the US.
Assange mentally drained
Yet, the toll of his six-month-long detention at London’s notorious Belmarsh Prison was soon evident. His father, John Shipton, had claimed last month that Assange was kept in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours every day in conditions he called “sordid and hysterical”. Shipton said that when he visited his son, he was “a bit shaky, and “suffering from anxiety” and that “the intensity of his treatment has increased over the past year”.
Back in May, Assange was not well enough to appear via video link in court, and it is believed that he was placed in the prison hospital after a “dramatic” weight loss.
On Monday, the previously vivacious WikiLeaks founder stammered to say his name and date of birth in his latest extradition hearing. Fighting back tears, the 48-year-old complained that he was denied access to his computer whilst imprisoned, therefore he was not fully prepared.
Assange’s legal team asked for a delay in the proceedings to collect more evidence, stating that the extradition was “politically motivated” and a “war on whistleblowers”. But District Judge, Vanessa Baraitser denied their request and stated that his extradition case would commence on 25 February 2020. When she questioned Assange about whether he understood what was happening, he responded, “Not really. I can’t think properly.
“I don’t understand how this is equitable. This superpower had ten years to prepare for this case and I can’t access my writings. It’s very difficult where I am to do anything but these people have unlimited resources.
“They are saying journalists and whistleblowers are enemies of the people. They have unfair advantages dealing with documents. They [know] the interior of my life with my psychologist. They steal my children’s DNA. This is not equitable what is happening here.”
What could extradition mean?
Assange – who is originally from Australia – was forcibly removed and arrested in April at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he had been living for almost seven years. Following sexual abuse allegations in Sweden, he had claimed asylum at the embassy, but the arrangement began to sore after shifting politics in Ecuador.
The US authorities had been trying to extradite Assange at around the same time in connection with computer hacking involving Chelsea Manning and later allegations that Assange had conspired with Russia in the 2016 election. Furthermore, WikiLeaks had published a myriad of controversial leaks over the years which implicated the US in various atrocities, including war crimes.
Assange’s staunch supporters have regarded him as a hero who sacrificed his well-being to deliver the truth to the public. Many of them argue that to punish him threatens the freedom of the press, and question what a conviction under the Espionage Act could mean for journalists who publish similar stories in the future.
The Guardian, who had worked with Assange and featured pieces around many WikiLeaks documents, argued that despite him not being innocent, his extradition could have serious implications and supported a softer alternative. The paper stated, “From first to last, the Assange case is a morally tangled web. He believes in publishing things that should not always be published – this has long been a difficult divide between the Guardian and him.
“But he has also shone a light on things that should never have been hidden. When he first entered the Ecuadorian embassy he was trying to avoid extradition to Sweden over allegations of rape and molestation. That was wrong. But those cases have now been closed. He still faces the English courts for skipping bail. If he leaves the embassy, and is arrested, he should answer for that, perhaps in ways that might result in deportation to his own country, Australia. Nothing about this is easy, least of all Mr. Assange himself. But when the call comes from Washington, it requires a firm and principled no. It would neither be safe nor right for the UK to extradite Mr. Assange to Mr. Trump’s America.”