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Assange absent at last-ditch bid to avoid extradition

2024-02-21 HKT 02:15
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  • Stella Assange told her husband's supporters "the world is watching." Photo: AP
    Stella Assange told her husband's supporters "the world is watching." Photo: AP
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was absent from a London court due to illness on Tuesday, as his lawyers launched a likely last UK bid to appeal against his extradition to the United States to face espionage charges.

Washington wants the Australian extradited after he was indicted multiple times between 2018 and 2020 over WikiLeaks' publication of secret military and diplomatic files on the US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Kicking off two days of arguments in front of two senior judges at the High Court, the 52-year-old's leading lawyer said he would show "errors of law" in previous rulings against him in recent years.

"Mr Assange was exposing serious state criminality," Edward Fitzgerald said, describing the charges against him as "politically motivated."

"He is being prosecuted for engaging in ordinary journalistic practice of obtaining and publishing classified information," he added.

"There is a real risk that he will suffer flagrant denial of justice," if sent to the US, Fitzgerald argued.

Earlier, he had told the judges that Assange was "not well today" and would not attend in person or via video link.

Lawyers for the US will present their arguments on Wednesday. It is unclear if Assange will attend then.

The two-day session is the latest in his long-running legal saga in Britain, and is seen as his last chance to fight extradition in the country's courts.

The judges will decide whether to grant him another full appeal hearing, to be held at a later date, or if they rule against him, he will have exhausted his UK legal options.

However, Stella Assange has said her husband will then ask the European Court of Human Rights to temporarily halt the extradition, warning he would die if sent to the United States.

"Please keep on showing up, be there for Julian and for us, until Julian is free," she told a crowd of supporters outside court.

"We have two big days ahead. We don't know what to expect, but you're here because the world is watching," she added.

"They just cannot get away with this. Julian needs his freedom and we all need the truth."

The couple, who met when Stella worked on his legal case in the mid-2010s, have two children together.

US President Joe Biden has faced sustained domestic and international pressure to drop the 18-count indictment against Assange in a Virginia federal court, which was filed under his predecessor Donald Trump.

Major media organisations, press freedom advocates and the Australian parliament are among those decrying the prosecution under the 1917 Espionage Act, which has never been used over the publishing of classified information.

Australia's parliament passed a motion to end his prosecution last week, with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese denouncing the years-long legal pursuit and saying, "enough is enough."

But Washington has maintained the case, which alleges Assange and others at WikiLeaks recruited and agreed with hackers to conduct "one of the largest compromises of classified information" in US history.

Detained in the high-security Belmarsh Prison in southeast London since April 2019, Assange was arrested after spending seven years holed up in Ecuador's London embassy.

He fled there to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faced accusations of sexual assault which were later dropped.

UK courts previously blocked his extradition, but the High Court reversed the decision on appeal in 2021 after Washington vowed not to imprison him in its most extreme prison, "ADX Florence."

It also pledged not to subject him to the harsh regime known as "Special Administrative Measures" and eventually allow him to be transferred to Australia.

In March 2022, the UK's Supreme Court refused permission to appeal there, arguing Assange failed to "raise an arguable point of law."

Months later, ex-interior minister Priti Patel formally signed off on his extradition.

Assange's lawyers are now appealing on various grounds, including that the decades-long prison sentence he faces in the US is "disproportionate" and that US is acting in "bad faith."

Mark Summers, another Assange lawyer, told the court of news reports alleging the US had plotted to kidnap and even kill Assange before he was arrested during Trump's presidency.

"There was a plot... the president himself requested himself to be provided with options with how to do it and sketches were even drawn up" Summers said, citing a Yahoo News report.

He branded the extradition request by Washington a "misuse" of the Anglo-American treaty governing such matters. (AFP)

Assange absent at last-ditch bid to avoid extradition