By Michael Holden
LONDON (Reuters) – Julian Assange is wanted for crimes that put at risk the lives of people in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan who had helped the West, some of whom later disappeared, said a lawyer acting for the United States in its bid to extradite him.
Almost a decade since his WikiLeaks website enraged Washington by leaking hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. documents, Assange, 48, is fighting extradition from Britain to the United States where he is accused of espionage and hacking.
He was wanted, said James Lewis, lawyer for the U.S. authorities, not because he embarrassed the authorities but because he put informants, dissidents, and rights activists at risk of torture, abuse or death.
“What Mr Assange seems to defend by freedom of speech is not the publication of the classified materials but the publication of the names of the sources, the names of people who had put themselves at risk to assist the United States and its allies,” Lewis said at London’s Woolwich Crown Court.
Supporters hail Assange as an anti-establishment hero who revealed governments’ abuses of power, and argue the action against him is a dangerous infringement of journalists’ rights.
Chants from 100 of his backers outside could be clearly heard inside. Assange himself complained about the din.
“I’m finding it difficult concentrating,” said a clean-shaven Assagne, dressed in a blue-grey suit. “This noise is not helping either. I understand and am very appreciative of the public support. They must be disgusted…”
Judge Vanessa Baraitser warned those in the public gallery not to disturb the proceedings.
The United States asked Britain to extradite Assange last year after he was pulled from the Ecuador embassy in London, where he had spent seven years holed up avoiding extradition to Sweden over sex crime allegations which have since been dropped.
Assange has served a prison sentence in Britain for skipping bail and remains jailed pending the U.S. extradition request.
Jennifer Robinson, one of Assange’s lawyers, has said his case could lead to criminalising activities crucial to investigative journalists, and his work had shed light on how the United States conducted its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We are talking about collateral murder, evidence of war crimes,” she said last week. “They are a remarkable resource for those of us seeking to hold governments to account for abuses.”
Lewis, speaking on behalf of the U.S. authorities, said hundreds of people across the world had to be warned after the WikiLeaks disclosures. Some had to be relocated. Others later disappeared, he said, although he said the United States would not try to prove that was directly a result of the disclosures.
Some WikiLeaks information was found at Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan, he added.
HERO OR ENEMY?
The United States has charged Assange with 18 criminal counts of conspiring to hack government computers and violating an espionage law. Lewis said Assange had conspired with Chelsea Manning, then a U.S. soldier known as Bradley Manning, to hack Department of Defense computers.
He said Assange’s defense team was guilty of hyperbole by suggesting Assange might receive a U.S. jail term of 175 years. Similar cases had led to terms of about 40-60 months, he said.
Assange attracted a host of well-known backers, with those criticizing the case against him ranging from leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn to Roger Waters, co-founder of rock group Pink Floyd. Designer Vivienne Westwood was among protesters outside court.
In addition to releasing military records, WikiLeaks angered Washington by publishing secret U.S. diplomatic cables that laid bare critical U.S. appraisals of world leaders. Assange made headlines in 2010 when WikiLeaks published a classified U.S. military video showing a 2007 U.S. helicopter strike in Baghdad that killed a dozen people, including two Reuters news staff.
The hearing will not decide if Assange is guilty of any wrongdoing, but whether the extradition request meets the requirements set out under a 2003 UK-U.S. treaty, which critics say is stacked in Washington’s favor.
The case will get under way before being postponed until May 18, when it will resume again for a further three weeks to allow both sides more time to gather evidence.
(Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Peter Graff)