- Elected representatives from Germany, Italy and the European Parliament will travel to London as official observers
- Full extradition hearing to start on 24 February 2020, spanning “three or four weeks”
- Defence says it will call up to 21 witnesses
Twenty five elected politicians from twelve countries across the European Union have resolved to monitor proceedings in the case of WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange, who is fighting extradition to the United States in an unprecedented Espionage Act prosecution for journalistic activity. Delegations from Germany, Italy and the European Parliament will travel to London to monitor the main extradition hearing in February 2020.
A case management hearing this morning confirmed that the main hearing will take place over three or four weeks at Belmarsh Magistrates’ Court starting on 24 February 2020, with District Judge Vanessa Baraitser presiding. Assange participated in today’s hearing by videolink from HMP Belmarsh, where he has been detained since his expulsion from London’s Ecuadorian embassy and arrest on 11 April 2019. Since 22 September 2019 he has been detained solely for the purposes of the US extradition request.
The move from European parliamentarians comes amid rising concerns about the repercussions of the extradition proceedings for press freedom, fundamental rights and national sovereignty, expressed across the political spectrum. Last month the European Parliament, the German Bundestag and the Italian Senate all held events on the case.
Clare Daly, an Irish MEP who chaired the European Parliament special event on the case last month, said:
“This is the most important press freedom case of a generation. Its implications for civil liberties and fundamental rights are far-reaching and serious. There is intense interest across the different political groups of the European Parliament. In February I will be there along with my colleagues to ensure that the European Parliament has a presence at the trial and to rigorously monitor the proceedings.”
Announcing the formation of the Italian Parliamentary Intergroup for monitoring the Assange case, Senator Gianni Marilotti said:
“The cross-party group of observers will focus its attention on the human rights violations that the WikiLeaks publisher is facing according to the statements of Mr Nils Melzer, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, as well as the possible human rights violations that Julian Assange could face once extradited in the US.
“Considering the concerns raised by the use of the US Espionage Act against a publisher and the consequences that this will have on global media freedom and on the protection of investigative journalism, the cross-party group aims to bring to the attention of the Italian and European institutions the conflict between this possible extradition to the US and the freedom of the press and freedom of speech that form the foundations of the European democracies.”
Concerns for the welfare of Julian Assange, who is detained on the Belmarsh medical wing, have grown since his disoriented appearance at his last case management hearing on 21 October. Last month, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer renewed his warning that Assange’s life is at risk and an open letter from 60 medical professionals to UK Home Secretary Priti Patel called for Assange’s transfer to a university teaching hospital.
This week, a second letter from 100 medics has called on the Australian government to facilitate Assange’s return to his home country for medical treatment.
Two signatories of the open letters, Consultant Psychiatrist Dr Marco Chiesa MD FRCPsych and Consultant Clinical Psychologist Dr David Morgan DClinPsych MSc were not able to attend this morning’s hearing because they could not access the courtroom. In her opening statement, Judge Baraitser recognised that there was a valid issue about access to the court proceedings.
Dr Stephen Frost, who also signed the open letters organised by the group Doctors4Assange, said:
“That it is deemed necessary for senior medical experts to attend today’s hearing to observe Julian Assange from the public gallery via video link points to the extreme recklessness of the UK government’s continued arbitrary detention of Julian Assange and the psychological torture which results from that, as stated by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer. We repeat that it is impossible to assess adequately let alone treat Mr Assange in Belmarsh prison and that he must as a matter of urgency be moved to a university teaching hospital. When will the UK government listen to us?”
In a summary submitted to the court, the defence has proposed 21 witnesses, 16 of whom may be called during the hearing in February.
Julian Assange has been charged in the Eastern District of Virginia with 17 counts under the 1917 Espionage Act, all related to WikiLeaks publications of 2010-11. He also faces a further conspiracy charge related to journalist-source communications. EDVA is a judicial district located in the greater Washington DC metropolitan area.
Assange was represented at this hearing by Ed Fitzgerald QC of Doughty Street Chambers, instructed by Birnberg Peirce.