July 27: The US attorney general, William Barr, may be using Julian Assange’s extradition case in the UK for political ends, the WikiLeaks founder’s defence team alleged during a court hearing at which he appeared by video link from prison for the first time in months.
It was a fact that Donald Trump had described the defence case as “a plot by the Democrats”, Edward Fitzgerald QC told the hearing at Westminster magistrates court, The Guardian reported.
Fitzgerald said a new superseding US indictment, produced months after the start of attempts in the UK to secure his extradition, had been “sprung” on his defence team.
The indictment, which had not yet been formally laid before the court, supersedes previous indictments brought in February and which related to 2010 and 2011.
A US grand jury had previously indicted Assange on 18 charges – 17 of which fall under the Espionage Act – around conspiracy to receive, obtaining and disclosing classified diplomatic and military documents.
The details in the new indictment – publicised last month by the US Department of Justice – focus on conferences in 2009 in the Netherlands and Malaysia at which US prosecutors say Assange tried to recruit hackers who could find classified information, including in relation to a “most wanted leaks” list posted on the WikiLeaks website.
The hearing on Monday was the latest in a series of administrative hearings. Chaotic arrangements meant journalists, legal observers and some lawyers had difficulty accessing it remotely to listen in. The full hearing of the extradition case has been postponed until September due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Wearing a beige sweater and a pink shirt, Assange eventually appeared from Belmarsh prison after an earlier attempt was aborted.
Fitzgerald told the hearing it would be improper if the new indictment led to the postponement of the hearing until after the November presidential election in the US.
Judge Vanessa Baraitser told the hearing that the deadline had arrived for any further evidence before the extradition hearing, aside from psychiatric reports. She said she expected all parties to attend the hearing in September in person.
Outside the court, the WikiLeaks editor-in-chief, Kristinn Hrafnsson, said: “The ‘new’ superseding indictment actually contains nothing new. All the alleged events have been known to the prosecution for years.
“It contains no new charges. What’s really happening here is that despite its decade-long head-start, the prosecution are still unable to build a coherent and credible case. So they’ve scrapped their previous two indictments and gone for a third try.”
US Department of Justice authorities have said: “The new indictment does not add additional counts to the prior 18-count superseding indictment returned against Assange in May 2019. It does, however, broaden the scope of the conspiracy surrounding alleged computer intrusions with which Assange was previously charged.”