A judge has dismissed claims that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is struggling to participate in his extradition hearing because of his “vulnerable” mental state.
Lawyers for Assange, 48 years old, argued that he should be allowed to leave the secure dock at Woolwich Crown Court to sit with them, citing a number of reasons including his “precarious psychological vulnerability”.
Judge Vanessa Baraitser was told that the Australian defendant is taking medication and is struggling to communicate with his legal team.
Mark Summers, QC, representing Assange, said: “Mr Assange is a vulnerable person. You are aware of the psychological issues in this case. He carries those burdens.”
Assange is wanted in the US on 17 charges under the Espionage Act and conspiracy to commit computer intrusion after the publication of hundreds of thousands of classified documents in 2010 and 2011.
Prosecutors say he and former US army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning committed “common criminality” by plotting to hack into and steal state secrets from US Department of Defense computers.
Judge Baraitser rejected the application to allow Assange to leave the dock, saying: “I have not been told of any particular aspect of your condition which requires you to leave the dock and sit with your legal team.”
The judge said other “sensible, appropriate and proportionate” measures could be put in place, such as regular breaks, to ensure he could instruct lawyers and get a fair trial.
Lawyers for Assange have said it would be unlawful for Britain to hand him over to the US, because article 4(1) of the Anglo-US Extradition Treaty 2003 states that extraditions shall not be granted for a “political offence”.
UK law does not prevent extradition for political offences
However, James Lewis, QC, representing prosecutors, has argued that the treaty only has effect in the US.
He said the case is covered only by the UK’s 2003 Extradition Act, which – unlike the Anglo-US treaty – makes no exception for political offences.
Lewis said it is a more “difficult matter to define a political offence” in English law, adding: “One always has to look at the purpose of the crime.”
Lewis said the allegations would have to involve “overthrowing or changing the government or inducing it to changing it’s policy” to be considered a political offence under English law.
“One has to consider what Mr Assange is alleged to have done against whether or not that was the only purpose by him, to change the government in America or induce it to change its policy,” he said.
“Both of which we say is not so, it would not fall within the definition of a political offence.”
Lewis said the concept of political offences, introduced in English law in the 1870s, is “out of date” in modern society.
US government’s arguments are like ‘Alice in Wonderland’
Edward Fitzgerald, QC, representing Assange, responded: “To describe the protection for political offences as ‘out of date’ is a gross extravagance of language.”
Fitzgerald said prosecutors were making a “very bizarre argument” by claiming that “a treaty that gives rise to the [extradition] request has nothing to do with the lawfulness of the request”.
“We are in a pretty strange Alice in Wonderland world,” he added.
Fitzgerald said that by publishing leaked documents and footage on Wikileaks, Assange was seeking “to show that war crimes were being committed” and expose the “abuse of human rights” in Guantanamo Bay.
The lawyer argued that this would amount to a political offence under English law, saying: “It’s the very definition of seeking to make a government change its policy... what other purpose could there be?”
Assange will next appear at Westminster Magistrates’ Court by video-link for an administrative hearing on March 25.
He will then appear in person for a case management hearing at Woolwich Crown Court on April 7.
The extradition hearing will continue on May 18, with at least three weeks of evidence, however the final ruling is expected to come months later.
The decision is likely to be appealed by whichever side loses.
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