Attending the Assange trial - day three

  • 27 Feb 2020

Arguments centre on whether it is admissible to extradite those accused of 'political' offences.

by Tim Dawson, NEC member

"I am as much a participant in these proceedings as I am when I watch Wimbledon", Julian Assange told his lawyer in a dispute over access to his lawyers. Early in proceedings on Wednesday afternoon, Judge Vanessa Baraitser had asked him if he was feeling well enough to carry on.

The Wikileaks founder used the opportunity to try and speak to the court, something the judge would not allow without his being called to give evidence. The defendant complained to solicitor Gareth Peirce that access to his legal team during proceedings was limited by the presence of guards.

A bizarre dispute ensued, with counsel for the requesting state and his opposite number saying that neither objected to Julian Assange sitting among the lawyers. The judge declined this, saying it was beyond her authority to allow the defendant to leave the dock.

Earlier in the day, the case was likened to that of Alfred Dreyfus, by Edward Fitzgerald QC, his counsel. He conducted the extradition hearing on a complex historical journey through legal precedent. Examples came from the Hungarian Uprising of 1848, and the refusal to extradite Castinio to the Swiss Canton of Ticinio in 1891. Even the provisions of the Magna Carta in 1215 were deployed to buttress his argument.

The QC's essence was simple; there is a long-standing convention, accepted in international law and by scholars, that it is inadmissible to extradite those accused of political offences. An equal volume of precedent establishes that espionage (that accounts for 17 or the 18 charges for which Julian Assange is sought) is political, he said.

Edward Fitzgerald told the hearing that Wikileaks had been described as "an intelligence agency for the people" and that whatever offences it had committed were against the US state.

He also recounted the case of David Shayler who the French Court of Appeal refused to extradite in 1988. Shayler, a former MI5 officer, had leaked documents to the Mail on Sunday. Deeming this act political, the French courts refused extradition.

James Lewis QC, for the US government, told the hearing that because the US-UK extradition treaty had not been incorporated into English domestic law, it provided no protection for those whose offences were political.

He cited numerous examples which, he told the hearing, made clear that a court was only entitled to enforce domestic law and had no power to enforce a treaty. He accepted that this might seem odd to foreign powers but argued that alternative interpretation would be an anathema to Parliament's role as England's sole legislator.

"The idea of a political offence does not exist, otherwise it would be impossible to prosecute members of the IRA for acts of sedition," he told the hearing.

The hearing continues.

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