Britain on Monday began hearing Washington's extradition request for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, in a test case of media freedoms in the digital age and the limits of US justice.
Supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, hold US and Union Flags and placards calling for his freedom outside Woolwich Crown Court in southeast London on February 24, 2020, on the day of the opening of the full hearing into a US request for Assange's extradition. (Photo: AFP)
A ruling against the 48-year-old Australian could see him jailed for 175 years if convicted on all 17 US Espionage Act charges and one count of computer hacking he faces.
The charges relate to the release in 2010 by the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks of a trove of classified US government files detailing the realities of the military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.
One video from 2007 showed an Apache helicopter attack in which US soldiers gunned down two Reuters reporters and nine Iraqi civilians in broad daylight in Baghdad.
But the US extradition case is only the latest stage of a long-running legal saga that has seen Assange in some form of detention since the documents' release.
He spent years holed up in Ecuador's London embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden to face allegations of sexual assault -- since dropped -- that he and his supporters argue were politically motivated.
Protesters gathered outside Woolwich Crown Court in south-east London for the first day of the US extradition hearing on Monday, holding up banners reading "Free Assange".
His father John Shipton, who attended the hearing with Assange's brother Gabriel Shipton, decried the "ceaseless malice" of the authorities against his son.
"We're all here to vigorously and firmly support Julian in this 10-year long oppression and political action," he told reporters.
Assange, wearing a dark grey blazer and sweater over a white shirt and flanked by two security personnel, appeared calm inside the packed court room.
Free speech and media freedom campaigners have also decried the US charges against Assange.
The Committee to Protect Journalists said in December: "For the sake of press freedom, Julian Assange must be defended."
- Trump claim -
WikiLeaks initially worked with a string of high-profile newspapers to publish details from the leaked State Department and Pentagon files.
But after falling out with their editors, the site released hundreds of thousands of documents in their original form -- including the secret identities of diplomats and locals who worked with the US authorities.
The US Justice Department said last May that the "human resources" compromised by Assange "included local Afghans and Iraqis, journalists, religious leaders, human rights advocates, and political dissidents from repressive regimes".
In a new twist last week, Assange's defence team claimed US President Donald Trump promised to issue a pardon if Assange denied Russia leaked the emails of his 2016 election rival's campaign.
"In August 2017, Donald Trump's administration tried to pressure Julian Assange into saying things that would be favourable to President Trump himself," defence coordinator Baltasar Garzon said.
"When Julian Assange refused, he was charged and an extradition request was issued alongside an international arrest warrant."
The White House called the allegation "another never-ending hoax and total lie" but a judge agreed to add it to the case file.
- International fugitive -
Assange was in Britain when the allegations of sexual assault and rape in Sweden emerged in 2010, and was ordered by a London judge to be extradited there.
But he said he feared onward transfer to Washington, which had been outraged by the WikiLeaks files, and so sought and received asylum in Ecuador's embassy.
A political realignment in Quito toward the United States saw Assange fall out of favour, however.
In April 2019, Assange was dragged out of the embassy, where he was promptly arrested for breaching his UK police bail.
He has since served a jail term for that but remains in custody in the high security Belmarsh prison, next to Woolwich Crown Court, awaiting the US extradition case.
The court will consider whether "the conduct described (by the US Justice Department) amounts to an extradition offence".
Britain's Crown Prosecution Service says the court must also weigh whether "extradition would be disproportionate or would be incompatible with the requested person's human rights".
Some US legal experts think Assange has a case.
"Use of the Espionage Act has a very checkered history in the century since Congress passed it," University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias told AFP.
Many think "extradition and US prosecution would have a chilling effect on press efforts to expose government information that is important to the public interest."