Niels Ladefoged

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange misses court hearing due to respiratory problems

The WikiLeaks founder is expected to call 21 witnesses during a three-week extradition hearing in September

Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, was too unwell to attend a court hearing by video link today at Westminster Magistrates’ Court.

Assange’s lawyer, Edward Fitzgerald QC, told the court that his client had had respiratory problems for some time.

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 48-year-old 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 a short court hearing at Westminster Magistrates’ Court, but frequently had difficulty hearing what the lawyers and judge were saying over noises on the line.

According to one journalist present at the court, district judge Vanessa Baraitser said the court had received an email from Belmarsh Prison, saying Assange was “refusing to attend the hearing and refusing to sign a refusal form”.

Fitzgerald told the judge that Assange’s solicitor, Gareth Peirce, had sent the court an email on Friday explaining that Assange was unwell with respiratory problems, 7 News reported.

The judge said she had hoped to provide the name of the crown court that could hear Assange’s extradition case today, but said she was still waiting for confirmation of the venue.

The court heard that the prosecution had been unable to complete a psychiatric report on Assange because a medical expert had been unable to gain access to Belmarsh Prison during the lockdown.

The judge gave the prosecution a deadline of 31 July to produce the psychiatric report on Assange.

James Lewis for the prosecution said the defence had served new evidence that would need to be examined to determine admissibility.

The judge ordered the prosecution to present a new skeleton argument to the court on 25 August, with the defence skeleton argument due on 1 September, 7 News reported.

The next scheduled hearing will take place on 29 June, and a full three-week hearing is due to start on 7 September.

In a separate development, 36 members of the European Parliament have called for Assange to be released from Belmarsh on press freedom and humanitarian grounds.

“Detention measures across Europe have become more flexible due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and prisoners are being considered for early release or bail as the severity of the coronavirus in closed quarters, such as a prison, puts prisoners at great risk of infection and death,” the MEPS said in a letter.

A second letter, signed by Yanis Varoufakis, a member of the Greek Parliament, and others, called for Assange to be released into home detention.

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