Niels Ladefoged

Court adjourns hearing into Assange extradition as US delays serving new indictment

Westminster Magistrates Court suspends scheduled extradition hearing into WikiLeaks founder after it emerged the US had failed to serve a second superseding indictment against him

A London court today abandoned a hearing into the US government’s request to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the US after the 48-year-old was unable to appear by video link to the court.

Lawyers had been expected to discuss a superseding indictment issued by the US against Assange, which introduces allegations that he conspired with hackers to encourage them to break into computer systems to obtain material to publish on WikiLeaks.

Westminster Magistrates Court heard today that the US government had yet to serve the second superseding indictment, which was made public on 24 June in the court.

Assange, who is being held at Belmarsh Prison, had been due to join the proceedings by video link, but the prison was unaware of the arrangements.

Edward Fitzgerald, representing Assange, told the court that he had wanted the WikiLeaks founder, who had been instructed by the court to appear, to take part in the hearing by video link.

“Mr Assange was due to be here by video link, but when we phoned Belmarsh in the video booth, they had no knowledge of it,” he said.

Joel Smith, representing the prosecution, said he understood a copy of the indictment had been provided to the court.

But Judge Vanessa Baraitser said that although she had received a copy of the indictment by email from the defence team, it had not been formally served on the court.

Smith said there was nothing the court could order or achieve during the hearing, adding: “We are all being very cryptic in the absence of Mr Assange.”

He told the judge he was unable to commit to a timetable for serving the superseding indictment, but it would have to follow the “usual proceedings”.

Fresh hacking conspiracy claims

The indictment does not add further counts to an 18-count indictment issued against Assange in May 2019.

But according to the US Department of Justice, the indictment “broadens the scope” of the conspiracy charge against Assange that he recruited and agreed with hackers to commit computer intrusions to benefit WikiLeaks.

It follows an earlier charge that Assange conspired with army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to crack a “password hash” to a classified US Department of Defense computer, which Assange denies.

A federal grand jury claims in the indictment that Assange recruited people to breach computer network and access restrictions, and to illegally procure and disseminate hacked information to WikiLeaks.

It accuses Assange of posting a detailed list of the “The Most Wanted Leaks of 2019”, organised by country, to encourage people to hack into computers or illegally obtain classified information.

An associate of Assange is alleged to have invited people at the “Hacking at Random” conference to discuss how documents on the “most wanted” list could be found.

Assange is alleged to have explained how WikiLeaks had exploited “a small vulnerability” inside the document distribution system of the US Congress to obtain reports of the Congressional Research Service that were not available to the public.

The indictment also accused Assange of encouraging hackers to obtain documents on the most wanted list in October 2009, during the “Hack in the Box” Security Conference in Malaysia.

In 2010, Assange is alleged to have gained access to the government computer system of an unnamed Nato country.

And in 2012, he communicated directly with a leader of the hacking group LulzSec, who was secretly an FBI informer, and provided a list of targets for LulzSec to hack.

In one case, Assange is alleged to have asked the head of LulzSec to look for mail, documents, databases and PDFs for WikiLeaks.

The indictment also alleges that WikiLeaks obtained and published emails from a data breach committed against a US intelligence consulting company – widely identified as Stratfor – by hackers affiliated with the hacking groups Anonymous and LulzSec.

The court adjourned for 15 minutes to allow Assange’s defence team to attempt to contact him by phone at Belmarsh Prison.

Hearing adjourned

Fitzgerald told the court that he was unable to contact his client, and asked for the proceedings to be adjourned until Assange could attend.

Assange later appeared by video link, wearing a beige sweater with a pink shirt and looking tired, according to reports by journalist Marty Silk.

According to Silk, Fitzgerald told the court that it would be improper if the new indictment led to a postponement of the hearing until after the November US election.

“If it’s going to happen, if they are going to mount a fresh request and drop the existing request, can it happen as soon as possible?” he said.

Fitzgerald said US secretary of state Mike Pompeo may be using Assange’s case for political purposes. 

Baraitser ordered a further hearing for 14 August. The defence will serve its skeleton argument on 25 August and the prosecution will file its response by 2 September, Silk reported.

Assange’s extradition case is due to be heard in the Central Criminal Court – the Old Bailey – on 7 September.

If convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison on each count except for conspiracy to commit computer intrusion, for which he faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison, the US Department of Justice said.

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