Berlin (CNSNews.com) – WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is challenging a U.S. extradition request, initiating a potentially lengthy legal battle over whether the Australian will stand trial in U.S. on hacking charges.
Appearing via video link from his prison cell, Assange told London’s Westminster magistrates’ court on Thursday he does “not wish to surrender myself for extradition for doing journalism that has won many awards and protected many people.”
The U.S. is seeking Assange’s extradition to face charges of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. He is accused of conspiring with former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to crack a password and so enable Manning to access a classified computer at the Pentagon.
Thursday’s preliminary hearing will be followed by a procedural one on May 30, with a more substantial hearing scheduled for June 12.
Assange’s appearance came just a day after he was sentenced to 50 weeks’ imprisonment for skipping bail to avoid Sweden’s attempts to extradite him in 2012. He faced allegations in that country of rape and sexual assault, offenses he denied at the time and since.
Assange had avoided that extradition request by taking refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London where he remained for the last seven years, until the host government last month revoked his asylum status, inviting British police into the mission to arrest him.
During Wednesday’s bail hearing his lawyer had argued that Assange only failed to surrender in 2012 for fear Sweden would extradite him to the U.S. – an argument the judge called “laughable.”
The U.S. launched extradition proceedings against him immediately after his arrest last month..
Ben Brandon, the lawyer representing the U.S. government, described the charge against Assange as “one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States.”
WikiLeaks incensed Washington by leaking hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. diplomatic documents in 2010-2011. The cables were unredacted, and the State Department claimed that their release had put many individuals at risk, and harmed diplomacy.
Among many other pieces of information, WikiLeaks also published a classified U.S. military video showing a 2007 helicopter attack in Baghdad which killed a dozen people, including two Reuters news staff.
More recently, federal investigators alleged WikiLeaks played an integral role in Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Speaking outside the court, Assange’s lawyer Jennifer Robinson said the case is not about hacking.
“This case is about a journalist and a publisher who had conversations with a source about accessing material, encouraged that source to provide material and spoke to that source about how to protect their identity,” she said.
“This is protected activity that journalists engage in all the time.”
Matt Pinsker, international law professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, said there was a critical legal distinction that makes Assange’s actions criminal and not protected under the First Amendment's freedom of the press.
Normally, such freedom applies to a situation where a news publisher merely receives classified documents, but played no role in breaking the law to obtain them.
“What makes Julian Assange’s case different is that he didn’t merely receive classified information from PFC Manning,” he said. “The allegation is that he provided guidance, support, and technical assistance to help PFC Manning circumvent U.S. security, hack the information, and transmit it to him.”
“Because he was helping someone else commit a crime, he was a co-conspirator and a criminal, and not a member of the media who merely received and published state secrets,” Pinsker argued. “Regardless of politics, there is a bipartisan consensus that Julian Assange should be prosecuted,” he said – with the exception of “a few radical outliers.”
Manning was sentenced to a 35-year prison term for leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks, but was pardoned by President Obama in early 2017. The former intelligence analyst was taken into custody again in March after refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks.