WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is to face an extradition hearing in September, after a court decided to delay proceedings because of the Covid-19 lockdown.
Westminster Magistrates’ Court said the US government’s extradition case against Assange would heard by another court, potentially outside London.
The decision follows arguments from lawyers representing Assange and the US government that it would be difficult to hold a fair hearing on 18 May, during the coronavirus lockdown.
Journalists and observers attempted to call into the hearing on a remote telephone line but were unable to hear the proceedings, after a court clerk reportedly made an error with the phone system.
The court heard that Assange was too unwell to attend the hearing by video link from Belmarsh Prison. 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.
The court heard last week that Assange’s defence team had not been able to communicate with their client to take instructions over new documents served by the US Prosecutor, Gordon Kromberg, because of Covid 19 restrictions.
Legal counsel for both defence and prosecution told District Judge Vanessa Baraitser that it would not be fair for the case to proceed by video link under Covid-19 lockdown conditions. She ruled that all parties should be in the courtroom when evidence is heard.
Prosecution and Defence unable to attend case before September
At a hearing in a sparsely populated courtroom today, Judge Baraitser proposed that the three-week extradition hearing, due to start on 18 May, should be postponed to August, when there were slots available in the court.
Edward Fitzgerald, representing Assange, said he would have great problems with the first three weeks of August and that barrister Mark Summers and key witnesses for the case would not be available in July.
“The November date is too late for us and the July date is perhaps unworkable for us,” he told the court, according to posts by journalist Marty Silk on Twitter.
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James Lewis, representing the US government, said the prosecution would not be able to attend the case in July, as American prosecutors would need to fly to the US and it was doubtful that flights would be available.
Judge Baraitser said there was no availability to hear the case in Woolwich Crown Court, which is close to Belmarsh Prison where Assange is being held.
The court agreed for the extradition hearing to be held at an alternative Crown Court, potentially outside of London in September, but said it would take time to arrange.
Legal process is “horrific” – Lauri Love
Commenting after the hearing, Lauri Love, who won an extradition case against the US government in February 2018, said that Assange will have spent more than 18 months in Belmarsh prison before any of the evidence relating to his extradition is heard.
“It’s a horrific legal process to go through under the best conditions. It takes a cumulative toll on your physical and mental health,” he said.
A campaign group, Doctors for Assange, said Assange has respiratory and other medical problems and should be released on bail “immediately”.
The defence is expected to call up to 21 witnesses over the course of the September hearing, which is expected to last up to three weeks.
Four days of preliminary legal argument was previously heard at Woolwich Crown Court at the end of February. Assange’s lawyers are due to attend court on 1 June 2020 for an administrative hearing.