LONDON — WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is back in court in Britain this week fighting extradition to the United States, where he faces espionage charges after he obtained and published a trove of classified material about the U.S. role in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
A British judge ruled in January that Assange should not be extradited to the United States, because he would be at high risk of suicide.
With the Justice Department appealing the ruling, lawyers representing the U.S. government were in the high court Wednesday to argue that the psychological assessment of Assange was flawed. Federal prosecutors want him flown to Northern Virginia to face 18 charges of violation of the Espionage Act, which could lead to a life sentence if he were convicted.
A crowd chanting, “Free Julian Assange” gathered outside the court Wednesday in London, where Stella Moris, his partner, former lawyer and mother of his two children, arrived.
Attorney James Lewis told the British court that the United States would not hold Assange under top-security conditions. Also rare, Washington will give assurances that if he is found guilty and sentenced, he could serve his jail time in Australia.
His lawyers reportedly rejected the assurances and said he would “most likely be dead” before any such transfer.
The WikiLeaks founder’s defense team and supporters say he acted as an investigative journalist when he obtained and released diplomatic cables and military reports on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. prosecutors say Assange crossed the line from publisher to co-conspirator.
“For Julian, this is nothing but a continuation of ‘punishment by process,’” his brother Gabriel Shipton, a filmmaker, told The Washington Post. He called it “a kind of zombie case — it just keeps coming and coming.”
The two-day hearing may not be the end of a saga that has dragged on for years. The British judges could take a month to rule on the U.S. appeal. And whoever prevails, either side has one last appeal to the British Supreme Court, but it can decide not to hear the case.
The high court could return the case to the lower court to revisit the testimony over suicide risk, said Nick Vamos, former head of extraditions for the Crown Prosecution Service and now a partner at Peters & Peters law firm.
Last year, Michael Kopelman, emeritus professor of neuropsychiatry at King’s College London, told the lower court that Assange suffers from anxiety, depression and auditory hallucinations, that he has imagined taking his own life and that faced with imminent extradition, “he would indeed find a way to commit suicide.”
The U.S. government’s attorneys want less weight given to Kopelman’s testimony, as he did not tell the court about Assange’s relationship with his former lawyer Moris. For its part, the defense has said the psychiatrist initially kept it private partly out of concern for her safety and their children.