WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s US extradition hearing has been postponed for up to six months after defence and prosecution lawyers agreed it would no longer be in the interests of justice to try the case in May.
Assange’s lawyers told the court that, in the midst of the UK’s Covid-19 coronavirus lockdown, they had not been able to meet with their client either in person or over video link to prepare the case.
The decision came after Edward Fitzgerald, representing Assange, told the court it had not been possible for Assange’s legal team to take instructions in response to new documents served by US prosecutor Gordon Kromberg.
The WikiLeaks founder faces 17 charges under the 1917 Espionage Act after WikiLeaks published a series of leaks from Chelsea Manning, a former US Army soldier turned whistleblower, in 2010-11.
He faces a further charge of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. The charges, filed in an indictment by the Easter District of Virginia, carry a maximum sentence of 175 years.
Observers and journalists dialled in to an hour-long court hearing at Westminster Magistrates’ Court, but frequently had difficulty hearing what the lawyers were saying, even when a court clerk repeated the words of Assange’s defence barrister for those on the conference call.
Fitzgerald said the defence team had not been able to gain access to their client, who is being held in Belmarsh Prison, to discuss the case. “Mr Assange is going into battle with his hands tied behind his back,” he said.
Social distancing measures hamper court preparations
The government extended coronavirus restrictions on 16 April 2020 for at least another three weeks until 8 May, and even if they were lifted, there would not be enough time to prepare for the hearing, which was scheduled for 18 May.
“It would be impossible to ensure open justice during the lockdown by making provisions for the press and the public to attend, said Fitzgerald. “There would not be time for lawyers to take full and proper instructions from Mr Assange,” he said.
Assange’s defence team said in written submissions that solicitors or counsel could not reasonably be expected to sit in close proximity in breach of government guidelines.
An attempt by the judge to allow Assange’s lawyers to meet with their client in the cells of Woolwich Crown Court by scheduling an “administrative hearing” on 20 April failed after prison authorities said it would breach the two-metre social distancing rules.
After an intervention by the court, Belmarsh Prison extraordinarily said it was prepared to the lift its two-metre distancing rules to allow lawyers to meet Assange on 22 April.
But it was not foreseeable that prison cell visits, where multiple people were ordered to travel to prison to congregate in interview rooms in violation of coronavirus distancing requirements, would be lawful, Fitzgerald said in a written submission.
Video link access ‘unsafe’
A medical report submitted to the court by Dr Jonathan Fluxman found that Assange was vulnerable to Covid-19.
Assange would have to leave mandatory isolation in his prison cell, walk with prison officers across the prison to a holding area, and then wait with other prisoners to use the video link, without protective measures such as antiseptic wipes.
The video link would not make it possible for Assange, who was described as being on heavy medication, to review documents, draft statements or exhibits.
“It would be oppressive to require Mr Assange to undertake a three-week hearing in his current physical and mental condition,” the court heard.
Assange has no access to a computer
Assange has not had access to a computer to review legal documents or to assist lawyers in preparing a legal defence.
IT officers at Belmarsh Prison have agreed to arrange for a computer to be delivered to Assange’s solicitor, Birnberg Peirce, for data to be uploaded. But it is unclear how the computer would be delivered back to Assange in prison, according to a written submission.
“Mr Assange no longer possesses the ability to prepare, communicate with his lawyers, call his evidence or advance his submissions in a way which provides even a semblance of equality of alms,” said Fitzgerald.
James Lewis, representing the US government, said the US supported an adjournment the hearing, given the “extaordinary circumstances” of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Our considered view is that the safest course to ensure the defendant has a fair hearing is to adjourn the current date of the continued extradition hearing,” he said.
Video link safety a matter for prison
Judge Vanessa Baraister said it was up to Belmarsh Prison to decide whether it was safe for Assange to use the video conferencing room to provide instructions to his lawyers.
“If the prison authorities responsible for his care consider it is safe for this [video conferencing] to take place, then I expect lawyers to continue taking instructions using this facility,” she said.
The judge said she expected experts and witnesses to use technology, such as video conferencing, to give evidence, from their own homes if necessary, to facilitate the administration of justice during the coronavirus pandemic.
But she said it was not appropriate for both parties in this case to attend the extradition hearing remotely, and the government’s extension of the lockdown had made the possibility of reviewing the hearing before 18 May “at best uncertain”.
The judge said there was space in the court calendar to hear two weeks of the three-week extradition hearing from 20 July. That could be followed by a further week in August.
The earliest available date for a full three-week hearing is 2 November.
The court adjourned until 4 May to allow Assange’s legal team to take instructions from their client over a preferred date.