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Julian Assange published 'stolen' military documents and is not an 'ordinary journalist', says US government

Julian Assange is fighting against extradition to the United States (PA Wire)
Julian Assange is fighting against extradition to the United States (PA Wire)

Julian Assange was not acting as an “ordinary journalist” when he encouraged the leak of hundreds of thousands of classified military documents, the US government has argued on the second day of the Wikileaks founder’s final battle against extradition.

The 52-year-old is wanted in America to stand trial over the public disclosure in 2010 and 2011 of secret documents relating to the Afghan and Iraq wars as well as detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

His supporters say Assange was simply working as a journalist and publisher, helping to expose evidence of war crimes, torture, rendition, and unlawful deaths by the US.

He is locked in a battle against extradition, saying he would face an unfair trial in the US and accusing the country of pursuing a politically motivated case against him.

Clair Dobbin KC, representing the US government, told the High Court on Wednesday that Assange is accused of helping US military analyst Chelsea Manning to “steal” the documents that were ultimately published online by Wikileaks.

“These were documents which exposed to the world the unredacted names of human sources who had provided information to the US, many of whom lived in war zones or under repressive regimes”, she said.

“(He) created a grave and imminent risk that innocent people would suffer physical harm or arbitrary detention.”

The US claims Assange was working with Ms Manning on the leak of the material, knowing that it had been “stolen and obtained by illegal computer hacking”. He also faces a claim that he tried to help crack a password “hash” which would have allowed Ms Manning to download classified material anonymously.

Ms Dobbin said Assange went beyond the role of ordinary investigative journalist, and argued he could not claim to have simply encouraged a whistleblower.

“He is not in a position to be able to claim he is akin to an ordinary journalist, or that Wikileaks is akin to an ordinary publisher”, said Ms Dobbin.

She added that Wikileaks had “explicitly solicited classified material”, a call to arms that Ms Manning is said to have responded to.

Ms Dobbin accepted that the prosecution is “unprecedented”, but insisted that journalists and publishers are not immune from criminal prosecution.

Assange has been in a battle with the US since the leak of the documents. He spent more than seven years holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, seeking to avoid extradition to Sweden.

He was originally wanted in that country for questioning on sex assault allegations, and broke the terms of his bail in the UK by entering the Ecuadorian embassy in Knightsbridge from 2012, saying he feared onward transfer to the US.

He was evicted from the embassy in 2019, and has been held ever since at maximum security HMP Belmarsh.

A District Judge blocked extradition in 2021 on the grounds that Assange would face an “oppressive” risk of suicide if sent to the US and held in a high-security prison while awaiting a trial.

But High Court judges later overturned the decision, after receiving assurances from the US on Assange’s safety behind bars.

This week’s hearing is an application from Assange for permission to mount a fresh appeal against extradition. If successful, the case will move on to a full appeal at a later date.

But if rejected, Assange’s supporters say this is the final avenue open to him within UK law to stop extradition, though a last-ditch appeal to the European Court of Human Rights would be possible.

His legal team argued on Tuesday that Assange would not get a fair trial in the US, he has faced prejudicial statements from senior US officials, and he claims he could face extra charges if sent for trial.

Assange’s legal team argued the case, which began under President Donald Trump, is politically motivated, and should be stopped by the UK courts after evidence emerged of a CIA plot to kidnap or kill Assange.

Dame Victoria Sharp, President of the King’s Bench Division, and Mr JusticeJohnson are hearing argument across two days, and are expected to deliver their ruling at a later date.

Both days of the High Court hearing have been disrupted by audio failures on a videolink to the hearing room. Dame Victoria issued an apology on Wednesday morning for the problems, shortly before the hearing had to be stopped because Ms Dobbin’s address to the court was inaudible.