Protestors wear "#FREEASSANGE" face masks outside Belmarsh prison prior to Julian Assange's extradition hearing on February 24, 2020 in London, England. Picture: LEON NEAL / GETTY IMAGES
Protestors wear "#FREEASSANGE" face masks outside Belmarsh prison prior to Julian Assange's extradition hearing on February 24, 2020 in London, England. Picture: LEON NEAL / GETTY IMAGES

London — Julian Assange is wanted for crimes that put at risk the lives of people in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan who had helped the West, said a lawyer acting for the US in its bid to extradite the 48-year-old.

Almost a decade since his WikiLeaks website enraged Washington by leaking secret US documents, a clean-shaven Assange appeared before an extradition hearing at London’s Woolwich Crown Court to confirm his name and age.

Judge Vanessa Baraitser, speaking above chanting of “free Julian Assange” from his supporters outside, cautioned that anyone causing a disturbance would be removed. She said the chanting would not help Assange’s case.

The US’s lawyer, James Lewis, told the court that Assange should be extradited to stand trial for crimes including hacking, and for disseminating unredacted material that had put at risk the lives of informants, journalists, dissidents and others in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.

The US asked Britain to extradite Assange in 2019 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 sentence in Britain for skipping bail and remains jailed pending the US extradition request.

Lewis sought to make clear that Assange was not wanted because he had embarrassed the US but because he had broken the law and put lives at risk.

“I would remind the court that these were individuals who were passing on information from Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran,” Lewis said. Hundreds of people across the world had to be warned after the WikiLeaks disclosures and some had to be relocated from their countries, he added.

“Some sources identified by WikiLeaks … subsequently disappeared,” he said, though he added US authorities could not prove that was a result of WikiLeaks’s action.

Jennifer Robinson, Assange’s lawyer, has said his case could lead to criminalising activities crucial to investigative journalists and his work has shed an unprecedented light on how the US 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.”

Hero or enemy?

Assange is wanted by the US on 18 criminal counts of conspiring to hack government computers and violating an espionage law, and could spend decades in prison if convicted.

Lewis said Assange had conspired with Chelsea Manning, then a US soldier known as Bradley Manning, to hack department of defence computers. He said the defence was exaggerating when it said Assange might receive a US jail term of 170 years.

Dressed in a blue-grey suit, Assange sat in the dock and studied legal papers.

A hero to admirers who say he has exposed abuses of power, Assange is cast by critics as a threat to Western security. He says the extradition is politically motivated by those embarrassed by his revelations.

In addition to releasing military records, WikiLeaks angered Washington by publishing secret US diplomatic cables that laid bare critical US appraisals of world leaders. Assange made headlines in 2010 when WikiLeaks published a classified US military video showing a 2007 US helicopter strike in Baghdad that killed a dozen people, including two Reuters news staff.

Since he fell foul of the US, he has always feared ending up on trial there.

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-US treaty, which critics say is stacked in Washington’s favour.

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.