US lawyers say WikiLeaks’ Assange went far beyond journalism and should face spying charges

US lawyers say WikiLeaks’ Assange went far beyond journalism and should face spying charges

By Associated Press

LONDON: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should face espionage charges in the United States because he put innocent lives at risk and went beyond journalism in his bid to solicit, steal and indiscriminately publish classified U.S. government documents, lawyers for the American government argued Wednesday.

The lawyers spoke before Britain’s High Court in response to a last-ditch bid by Assange’s defense to stop his extradition from the United Kingdom to the U.S.

Assange’s lawyers are asking the High Court to grant him a new appeal — his last legal roll of the dice in the long-running legal saga that has kept him in a British high-security prison for the past five years.

The 52-year-old Australian has been indicted on 17 charges of espionage and one charge of computer misuse over his website’s publication of a huge trove of classified U.S. documents almost 15 years ago. American prosecutors allege Assange encouraged and helped U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning steal diplomatic cables and military files that WikiLeaks later published, putting lives at risk.

Lawyer Clair Dobbin told the High Court on Wednesday that Assange damaged U.S. security and intelligence services and “created a grave and imminent risk” by releasing the hundreds of thousands of documents — risks that could harm and lead to the arbitrary detention of innocent people, many of whom lived in war zones or under repressive regimes.

Dobbin added that in encouraging Manning and others to hack into government computers and steal from them, Assange was “going a very considerable way beyond” a journalist gathering information.

WikiLeakes founder Julian Assange’s

Assange was “not someone who has just set up an online box to which people can provide classified information,” she said. “The allegations are that he sought to encourage theft and hacking that would benefit WikiLeaks.”

Assange’s supporters maintain he is a secrecy-busting journalist who exposed U.S. military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have long argued that the prosecution is politically motivated and he won’t get a fair trial in the U.S.

Assange’s lawyers argued on the first day of the hearing on Tuesday that American authorities are seeking to punish Assange for WikiLeaks’ “exposure of criminality on the part of the U.S. government on an unprecedented scale,” including torture and killings.

Lawyer Edward Fitzgerald said Assange may “suffer a flagrant denial of justice” if he is sent to the U.S.

Dobbin rejected claims that the charges are a “tool of oppression” to punish Assange for his political opinions. She said the prosecution is based on law and evidence, and has remained consistent despite the changes of government in the U.S. during the course of the legal battle.

She added that it was not necessary for WikiLeaks to publish sensitive material, including names of those who could be endangered. Media outlets that went through the process of redacting the documents before publishing them are not being prosecuted, she said.

Assange’s lawyers say he could face up to 175 years in prison if convicted, though American authorities have said the sentence is likely to be much shorter.

Assange was absent from court on Wednesday and Tuesday because he is unwell, WikiLeaks said. Stella Assange, his wife, said Julian had wanted to attend, but was “not in good condition.”

Assange’s family and supporters say his physical and mental health have suffered during more than a decade of legal battles, including seven years in self-exile in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and the last five years in the high-security prison on the outskirts of the British capital.

Stella Assange, who married the WikiLeaks founder in prison in 2022 — said last week that his health has deteriorated during years of confinement and “if he’s extradited, he will die.”

“Julian is a political prisoner and he has to be released,” she told reporters.

Supporters holding “Free Julian Assange” signs and chanting “there is only one decision — no extradition” held a noisy protest outside the neo-Gothic High Court building for a second day on Wednesday.

Assange’s legal troubles began in 2010, when he was arrested in London at the request of Sweden, which wanted to question him about allegations of rape and sexual assault made by two women. In 2012, Assange jumped bail and sought refuge inside the Ecuadorian Embassy.

The relationship between Assange and his hosts eventually soured, and he was evicted from the embassy in April 2019. British police immediately arrested and imprisoned him for breaching bail in 2012. Sweden dropped the sex crimes investigations in November 2019 because so much time had elapsed.

A U.K. district court judge rejected the U.S. extradition request in 2021 on the grounds that Assange was likely to kill himself if held under harsh U.S. prison conditions. Higher courts overturned that decision after getting assurances from the U.S. about his treatment. The British government signed an extradition order in June 2022.

Meanwhile, the Australian parliament last week called for Assange to be allowed to return to his homeland.

If judges Victoria Sharp and Jeremy Johnson rule against Assange, he can ask the European Court of Human Rights to block his extradition — though supporters worry he could be put on a plane to the U.S. before that happens, because the British government has already signed an extradition order.