WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s hearing at the British High Court in London for his possible final appeal challenging his extradition to the U.S. began on Tuesday while supporters of the Australian publisher held rallies around the world demanding he be released from prison.
The first day of the two-day hearing before a panel of two judges wrapped on Tuesday, and arguments will resume on Wednesday. This hearing could be Assange’s final appeal attempting to block his extradition to the U.S. to face espionage charges for publishing classified U.S. military documents, although a full appeal hearing could come in the future if he wins in court this week.
“Mr. Assange is being prosecuted for engaging in ordinary journalistic practices of obtaining and publishing classified information which is true and of public interest,” Assange’s lead lawyer, Edward Fitzgerald, told the court.
If he loses this appeal, Assange’s only remaining option would be at the European Court of Human Rights, and his wife, Stella, said his lawyers would apply to the European judges for an emergency injunction if necessary. She told reporters that her husband’s life is at risk every day he remains in prison and that she believes he will die if he’s extradited to the U.S.
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Should he be extradited to the U.S. after exhausting all his legal appeals, Assange would face trial in Alexandria, Virginia, and could be sentenced to up to 175 years in an American maximum-security prison.
Journalists located outside of England and Wales, including from Fox News Digital, were denied access to observe the hearing remotely.
Assange, 52, was absent from court on Tuesday because he was “not well,” Fitzgerald told the High Court. His family has expressed concern over his health and safety in the past, and those fears were emphasized again when the Australian journalist was not able to make it to the courtroom.
“I’m very concerned that Julian was not well enough to attend court today,” Assange’s brother, Gabriel Shipton, told Fox News Digital.
A U.K. District Judge rejected the U.S. extradition request in 2021 on the grounds that Assange was likely to kill himself if he was held under harsh U.S. prison conditions. Higher courts later overturned that decision after receiving assurances from the U.S. about his treatment, and the British government signed an extradition order in June 2022.
U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, Alice Jill Edwards, called on the U.K. government earlier this month to halt the possible extradition of Assange over concerns that he would be at risk of treatment amounting to torture or other forms of ill-treatment or punishment.
Last month, a group of Australian lawmakers wrote a letter to U.K. Home Secretary James Cleverly demanding Assange’s U.S. extradition be halted over concerns about his safety and well-being, urging the U.K. government to instead make an independent assessment of Assange’s risk of persecution.
Assange is facing 17 charges for allegedly receiving, possessing and communicating classified information to the public under the Espionage Act, and one charge alleging a conspiracy to commit computer intrusion.
The charges were brought by the Trump administration’s Justice Department over WikiLeaks’ 2010 publication of cables leaked by U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning detailing war crimes committed by the U.S. government in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, detention camp. The materials also exposed instances of the CIA engaging in torture and rendition.
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WikiLeaks’ “Collateral Murder” video showing the U.S. military gunning down civilians in Iraq, including two Reuters journalists, was also published 14 years ago.
Assange has been held at London’s high-security Belmarsh Prison since he was removed from the Ecuadorian Embassy on April 11, 2019, for breaching bail conditions. He had sought asylum at the embassy since 2012 to avoid being sent to Sweden over allegations he raped two women because Sweden would not provide assurances it would protect him from extradition to the U.S. The investigations into the sexual assault allegations were eventually dropped.
Another one of Assange’s lawyers, Mark Summers, claimed there was evidence showing that there had been a “truly breathtaking plan” to kidnap or murder Assange while he was in the Ecuadorean Embassy and former President Trump had requested “detailed options” to kill him.
“Senior CIA officials requested plans, the president himself requested on being provided with options on how to do it and sketches were even drawn up,” Summers said.
The CIA under the Trump administration allegedly had plans to kill Assange over the publication of sensitive agency hacking tools known as “Vault 7,” which were leaked to WikiLeaks, Yahoo reported in 2021. The agency said the leak represented “the largest data loss in CIA history.”
The agency was accused of having discussions “at the highest levels” of the administration about plans to assassinate Assange in London and allegedly followed orders from then-CIA director Mike Pompeo to draw up kill “sketches” and “options.” The CIA also had advanced plans to kidnap and rendition Assange, and had made a political decision to charge him, according to the Yahoo report.
While he was in the embassy, the CIA was exposed for spying on Assange and his lawyers. A judge recently ruled that a lawsuit brought against the CIA for spying on his visitors can move forward.
“It was the first time that Julian’s lawyers were able to argue the political aspects of his prosecution in court, specifically the efforts of Mike Pompeo and his crusade against Julian,” Shipton told Fox News Digital of Tuesday’s hearing. “How he weaponized the DOJ to judicial kidnap Julian from the Ecuadorian Embassy, recorded meetings with his lawyer and even plotted to murder him.”
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“Soon it will be up to the U.K. to decide whether they make a stand for free speech or they send Julian to the U.S.A. to face possible torture and death,” he continued.
U.S. lawyers said in their written submissions that their case was “consistently and repeatedly misrepresented” by Assange’s legal team. The U.S. lawyers said Assange was not being prosecuted for publication of the leaked materials, but for aiding and conspiring with Manning to unlawfully obtain them and subsequently disclosing names of sources and “putting those individuals at grave risk of harm.”
There is no evidence that WikiLeaks publishing the documents put anyone in danger.
State Department spokesperson Mathew Miller was pressed about Assange’s hearing at a briefing on Tuesday, and Miller declined to go into detail, but did claim that the WikiLeaks founder helped Manning hack into a government computer to steal information – an apparent reference to Assange’s indictment in which he is accused of asking Manning to provide more materials, which is common practice among journalists.
The Obama administration in 2013 decided not to indict Assange over WikiLeaks’ 2010 publication of classified cables because it would have had to also indict journalists from major news outlets who published the same materials, which has been described as “The New York Times problem.” Former President Obama also commuted Manning’s 35-year sentence for violations of the Espionage Act and other offenses to seven years in January 2017, and Manning, who had been imprisoned since 2010, was released later that year.
The Justice Department under former President Trump, however, later moved to indict Assange under the Espionage Act, and the Biden administration has continued to pursue his prosecution.
Fox News Digital reached out to the Justice Department about Tuesday’s hearing, but a spokesperson declined to comment.
Numerous rallies were held in cities around the world in which supporters called for Assange’s freedom, including in London, Berlin, Paris, Sydney and Washington, D.C.
In London, Stella Assange, who like her husband’s lawyers described the prosecution as politically motivated, compared the case to that of Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition activist who died in prison on Friday while serving a 30-year sentence.
“Julian is a political prisoner and his life is at risk,” she told reporters outside the court in front of a large crowd of Assange’s supporters. “What happened to Navalny can happen to Julian.”
Fox News Digital was at the rally in Washington, where supporters praised Assange for revealing the truth about U.S. war crimes.
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Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the anti-war group Code Pink, said, “Think about the hundreds of thousands of people who died because of U.S. lies, and yet, zero accountability, zero, no talk even of imprisoning [former President] George Bush or [former Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice, or even Hillary Clinton, for her crimes as Secretary of State. Nothing, nothing at all.”
Benjamin continued: “Julian Assange, the one who wanted the world community to know about the war crimes that were being committed. Julian Assange, who understood how powerful truth can be. And yet here he is, languishing in prison. Here he is, potentially, very soon to be extradited to the United States.”
“This is a moment when we have to reflect on how wrong the world order is, when we have to reflect on how unjust it is that the truth tellers are the ones that are in prison, and how much we have to work for Julian Assange to never be extradited to the United States because we know he will never get a fair trial here in the United States,” she added. “And we know he has done nothing wrong. On the contrary, if anything, you should be awarded for having told the truth … And hopefully, we will be able to one day celebrate the release of Julian Assange and be able to, in person, give him our thanks for having exposed the war criminals and having told the American people exactly what it is your government has been doing.”
Author and journalist Esther Iverem said her “heart is broken in so many ways, as a journalist who believes in journalism, believes that journalism can make a difference when people hear the truth … I’m just here to say free Julian Assange. He’s a truth-teller.”
Filmmaker and journalist Eleanor Goldfield said that Assange is being prosecuted because “he opened governments, and he wouldn’t stop.”
“Assange is one man, he is one man whose fate marks the fate of countless others, whose fate is inextricably linked to all those who tear at the facade of empire, who won’t sit down and shut up, even in the face of imprisonment,” she said in front of the Justice Department. “If Julian Assange is brought to this country and tried for espionage, the people in this building, on this street, in this city, in this empire, will officially have criminalized real journalism and truth-telling.”
Singer, political activist, and community organizer Luci Murphy led activists in song.
“Drop the charges, we shall not be moved!” Murphy sang. “Free Assange, we shall not be moved! Just like a tree that’s planted by the water, we shall not be moved.”
No publisher had been charged under the Espionage Act until Assange, and many press freedom groups have said his prosecution sets a dangerous precedent intended to criminalize journalism.
In 2022, the editors and publishers of U.S. and European outlets that worked with Assange on the publication of excerpts from the more than 250,000 documents he obtained in the Cablegate leak – The Guardian, The New York Times, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and El País – wrote an open letter calling for the U.S. to drop the charges against Assange.
An editor for The Guardian also published an editorial on Sunday saying that the outlet opposes Assange’s U.S. extradition because doing so would be a threat to both the WikiLeaks founder and journalism.
There have also been multiple efforts made by lawmakers in the U.S. and Australia in the last year to demand Assange’s freedom, including a vote last week in which the Australian Parliament overwhelmingly supported calling on the U.S. and U.K. Governments to end Assange’s prosecution and a resolution introduced last month in the U.S. House calling for him to be released.
Reuters contributed to this report.