Attending the Assange trial - day four
28 February 2020
Tim Dawson, NEC member
"We are in an Alice In Wonderland world where the UK has entered into a treaty, that gives rise to this (extradition) request, and yet we are told that the terms of the treaty itself have nothing to do with the legality of its implementation” said Edward Fitzgerald QC, exasperation clear in his voice. Appearing for Julian Assange at his extradition hearing at Woolwich crown court, Fitzgerald was responding to a sustained argument that the terms of the treaty were irrelevant to this case.
His ire is easily understood. The US/UK extradition treaty of 2003 is a short and apparently straightforward document, article 4.1 says: "Extradition shall not be granted if the offense for which extradition is requested is a political offense."
Fitzgerald had made a vigorous case that it was impossible to interpret the Wikileaks’ publications on which this case turns - the Afghan and Iraqi war logs, the diplomatic cables and the rules of engagement - as anything other than deeply political acts.
"Exposing government wrongdoing and seeking to change policy are intimately entwined; these revelations not only sought to change US policy, they succeeded", Fitzgerald told the hearing.
James Lewis QC for the US government argued that the protection from extradition for those who commit 'political offences' dates from a time when struggles to overthrow governments could be painted in 'clear, vivid colours'. Today such protection has been systematically removed from both domestic laws and treaties. It was necessary for a court to enforce applications made under the treaty, but a court could not 'derive rights' from such treaty if they exceed rights defined in domestic law, he said.
Lewis further argued that even if this were not the case, Assange's alleged offences did not meet any reasonable definition of 'political acts'. "One cannot say that there is a struggle in the United States between the government and other factions, so one cannot say that a political offence has been committed", he told the hearing.
It was a day when the creaking technology of Britain’s courts generated as much attention as disputed precedent. Proceedings opened with the Assange being issued with headphones to amplify proceedings behind the bullet-proof glass screen where he sits.
For this to be useful, however, the judge and opposing counsels had to improve their microphone techniques. Boxes of papers that were earlier wheeled into court on sack barrows were stacked up as make-shift microphone stands.
Court staff gamely tried to make the technology work and promised that more effective microphones had been ordered and should be installed when the hearing recommences in May. Improvement was only partial, however. Assange abandoned the headphones within a few minutes.
His legal team made a formal application for their client to sit among his lawyers - a solution they described as 'normal practice for vulnerable defendants'. Judge Vanessa Baraitser turned down the application on the grounds that the solution was unnecessary.