- Arguments about political prosecution, surveillance and conditions in the US prison system will be raised in a bifurcated extradition hearing starting on 24 February 2020
- After one week, the case will be adjourned until 18 May and run for a further three weeks
- Council of Europe institutions set to speak out about conditions at Belmarsh Prison as international monitors prepare to head to London next month
- Medical professionals attending court warn that Assange’s health is in a “downwards spiral”
23 January 2020. Arguments about political prosecution, surveillance and conditions in the US prison system will take centre stage as WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange fights extradition to the United States.
Assange, who is facing an unprecedented Espionage Act prosecution for journalistic activity, appeared via video-link during a case management hearing this morning at Westminster Magistrates Court, the last significant court date before his main extradition hearing opens on 24 February at Woolwich Crown Court.
Both the prosecution and Assange’s defence team came to court with a request for more time to prepare. District Judge Baraitser accepted the proposal for the hearing to be bifurcated, with a first week of arguments to begin on 24 February, with a further three weeks to follow in May.
Tens of thousands of pages of evidence have been submitted by Assange’s legal team. Proposed defence witnesses include several who will give evidence anonymously. Two of these witnesses are connected with ongoing criminal proceedings in Spain against security company UC Global, who conducted a surveillance operation against Assange and his legal team while he was living in Ecuador’s London embassy.
Edward Fitzgerald of Doughty Street Chambers, acting for Assange, indicated that the defence will raise detailed arguments about WikiLeaks’ publication process during the main extradition hearing.
Assange’s team also intends to argue that there has been an abuse of process in the conduct of this extradition case. Two alleged WikiLeaks sources, Chelsea Manning and Jeremy Hammond, are currently being held in contempt in the United States for not cooperating with grand jury investigations in the Eastern District of Virginia.
As in previous hearings, counsel for Assange indicated that they had faced difficulties in gaining access to their client. Ed Fitzgerald told the court that, in addition to the logistical difficulties “it’s not an easy process to enable him to follow everything that’s going on.”
Assange remains in custody on the medical ward at HMP Belmarsh where, since 22 September 2019, he has been detained solely for the purposes of the US extradition request. UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer has stated that Assange’s life is at risk and an open letter from 60 medical professionals has called for Assange’s transfer to a university teaching hospital.
On Monday 27 January, Régis Brillat, Executive Secretary of CPT, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, will become the first member of a Council of Europe institution to make a public statement on the Assange case. The CPT is an independent monitoring body which visits places of detention in the member states of the Council of Europe to see how persons deprived of their liberty are treated.
Two independent medical observers were in court this morning to review proceedings on behalf of the campaign group Doctors4Assange. Dr Derek Summerfield, a psychiatrist and Honorary Senior Lecturer at Kings College London viewed proceedings from the public gallery alongside Dr Felicity De Zulueta, Emeritus Consultant Psychiatrist in Psychotherapy for South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust.
Speaking before the hearing, Dr Summerfield – who was for a decade principal psychiatrist at the Medical Foundation for the Victims of Torture – said:
“The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer found that Mr Assange is the victim of prolonged psychological torture and that his health has entered a ‘downward spiral’ inside Belmarsh Prison.
“Professor Melzer has raised fundamental medical-ethical questions. These must urgently be answered. Mr Assange must be moved from Belmarsh Prison immediately and provided expert medical assessment and care.”
Doctors4Assange are one of the groups who has committed to monitoring Assange’s main extradition hearing at Woolwich Crown Court, next month. More than 25 elected representatives from across Europe have already resolved to monitor proceedings and delegations from Germany, Italy and the European Parliament will travel to London.
Marketa Gregorova MEP, who intends to attend Woolwich Crown Court, said:
“Investigative journalism and press freedom are on trial here as much as Julian Assange is. A dangerous precedent might be set that would make the immensely important work of journalists reporting on intelligence agencies and the government a criminal act. At a time when democracies around the world are in decline, strong protections of the free press are ever more essential.”
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.