Assange in UK court over US extradition request

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange gestures from the window of a prison van as he is driven into Southwark Crown Court in London on May 1, 2019, before being sentenced to 50 weeks in prison for breaching his bail conditions in 2012. AFP

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange faces an initial hearing in London on Thursday over an extradition request from the United States, a day after he was jailed for 50 weeks for jumping bail.

The US wants to extradite the Australian whistleblower, who was arrested on April 11 after spending seven years in Ecuador's London embassy, to face charges of "conspiracy" for working with former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning.

The US indictment, which was only revealed following his dramatic arrest for breaching bail, accuses him of helping crack a password stored on Department of Defence computers in March 2010.

The charge carries a maximum sentence of five years.

Manning passed hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks, exposing US military wrong-doing in the Iraq war and diplomatic secrets about scores of countries.

WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson said on Wednesday that all efforts would now be focussed on preventing Assange's extradition to the US.

"It will be a question of life and death," he warned.

Assange's supporters believe that more serious charges could be filed if he is transferred to the US, and he fears the death penalty.

Hrafnsson was speaking outside London's Southwark Crown Court, where a British judge handed Assange a 50-week jail term for breaching a British court order when he sought refuge in the embassy in June 2012.

 

 

At the time, Swedish authorities wanted to extradite Assange over claims of sexual assault and rape, which he denied.

He claimed the allegations were a pretext to transfer him to the United States.

There is no longer an active investigation in Sweden and the extradition request has lapsed, but Assange was still accountable for breaching British law, leading to him being dragged shouting from the embassy by police when Ecuador gave him up last month.

The 47-year-old, his shaggy beard neatly trimmed, raised his fist to supporters in the public gallery at Southwark Crown Court as he was taken down to the cells.

In a letter read out on his behalf, Assange expressed regret, saying: "I did what I thought at the time was the best or perhaps the only thing that I could have done."

"I apologise unreservedly," he said.

Assange's team is fighting his extradition and the process could take years.

WikiLeaks is also back in the news in the United States, over its alleged role in the leak of Hillary Clinton's emails in 2016 US presidential election.

The Swedish claims against Assange date back to 2010, when he was at the centre of a global storm over WikiLeaks' exposures.

The sexual assault claim expired in 2015, but while the rape claim was dropped in 2017, the alleged victim wants the case reopened.

If Stockholm makes a formal extradition request, Britain must decide whether to consider it before or after that of the United States.

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