Attending the Assange trial - day one

  • 25 Feb 2020

The decision to 'ramp up the charges' against Assange was made to try and make him an example, said Edward Fitzgerald QC.

by Tim Dawson, NEC member

"Donald Trump wants Julian Assange's head on a pike" his extradition hearing heard yesterday. The American president had already stated that he considered journalists "sick, dishonest, deranged and fundamentally corrupt". The decision to 'ramp up the charges' against Assange was made to try and make him an example, said, Edward Fitzgerald QC speaking on behalf of the Wikileaks founder.

Assange, who looked remarkably well, wore a grey suit jacket and a blue top, his beard, apparently, recently trimmed.

A knot of protestors at the gate of the large prison and court complex in south-east London, kept up songs and chants that were audible in the courtroom throughout.

The morning of what is expected to be a five-day hearing was taken up with James Lewis QC for the US government laying out the arguments for extradition. He told the hearing that Assange's actions would have been a crime in the UK. He argued that Assange can rightfully be prosecuted in the US because he 'aided and abetted' Chelsea Manning, who was a serving soldier at the time. And, he said that whatever issues there might be with process did not diminish the applicability of the laws that Assange is accused of having violated.

The substantial case against Assange's extradition was that the imperative to prosecute was political, said Edward Fitzgerald QC speaking for the 48-year-old Australian. He dissected the lengthy time line of the case, observing that in 2013 President Obama commuted Chelsea Manning's jail sentence and decided to investigate Assange no further. Only after January 2017, when Trump came to office, were 'grotesquely inflated' charges pursued.

Fitzgerald also argued that his client was unlikely to have a fair trial in the event of his extradition. He said that Assange was likely to be kept in solitary confinement, without sufficient review, and would stand trial in a court that was notoriously dominated by jurors closely connected with the US security services.

Disagreement in the days to come is likely to centre on the admissibility of anonymously delivered evidence from contractors who allege they were engaged to bug Assange and his legal team during their time in the Ecuadorian embassy. Fitzgerald said that his witnesses were paid to covertly record and video Assange and to use stickers on the embassy windows and external rifle microphones to record conversations. Kidnapping and poisoning Assange were also considered. Fitzgerald argued that such bugging made a fair trial impossible.

The defence barrister was insistent that his client's actions had been those of a journalist. He listed the publications for which Assange has written – including The Guardian, the New York Times and The New Statesman, as well as his membership of the Australian journalists' union (and IFJ affiliate), the Media and Arts Alliance. He also listed journalistic awards that had been bestowed on Assange, and outlined the extensive redactions that Wikileaks had undertaken on leaked material.

Assange's only contribution, save for confirming his name and date of birth, was to complain about his difficulty in hearing proceedings. The detainee sought permission to address the court, but was denied.

Scores of international observers, many of them MEPs, fill he public galleries of the modern court building as well as an NUJ/IFJ observer.

Early in proceedings, the sound of chanting protesters prompted Judge Vanessa Baraitser to send a message calling for quiet to the gates of the vast court and prison complex. The protesters paid no heed. The hearing continues.

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