Lawyers for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and the U.S. government squared off in a London court on Monday at a high-stakes extradition case delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Assange, who has spent almost a year and a half in a British prison, sat in the dock at the Old Bailey criminal court and formally refused the U.S. extradition request.
Several dozen supporters, including fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and Assange's partner Stella Moris, gathered outside the courthouse before the hearing on Monday morning.
American prosecutors have indicted the 49-year-old Australian on 18 espionage and computer misuse charges over Wikileaks' publication of secret U.S. military documents a decade ago. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison.
American authorities allege that Assange conspired with U.S. army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to hack into a Pentagon computer and release hundreds of thousands of secret diplomatic cables and military files on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In a new indictment filed in June, U.S. prosecutors also say he conspired with members of hacking organizations and sought to recruit hackers to provide WikiLeaks with classified information. That indictment expanded the U.S. case against Assange but did not add any new charges.
Assange's lawyers say the prosecution is a politically motivated abuse of power that will stifle press freedom and put journalists around the world at risk.
They argue that Assange is a journalist entitled to First Amendment protection, and say the leaked documents exposed U.S. military wrongdoing. Among the files released by WikiLeaks was video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack by American forces in Baghdad that killed 11 people, including two Reuters journalists.
``Journalists and whistle-blowers who reveal illegal activity by companies or governments and war crimes _ such as the publications Julian has been charged for _ should be protected from prosecution,'' Assange attorney Jennifer Robinson said before the hearing.
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. He refused to go to Stockholm, saying he feared extradition or illegal rendition to the United States or the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In 2012, Assange sought refuge inside the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he was beyond the reach of U.K. and Swedish authorities _ but also effectively a prisoner, unable to leave the tiny diplomatic mission in London's tony Knightsbridge area.
The relationship between Assange and his hosts eventually soured, and he was evicted from the embassy in April 2019. British police immediately arrested him for jumping bail in 2012.
Sweden dropped the sex crimes investigations in November 2019 because so much time had elapsed, but Assange remains in London's high-security Belmarsh Prison as he awaits the extradition decision.
Supporters say the ordeal has harmed Assange's physical and mental health, leaving him with depression, dental problems and a serious shoulder ailment.
Journalism organizations and human rights groups have called on Britain to refuse the extradition request. Amnesty International said Assange was ``the target of a negative public campaign by U.S. officials at the highest levels.''
The case is due to run until early October. District Judge Vanessa Baraitser is expected to take weeks or even months to consider her verdict, with the losing side likely to appeal.