Lawyer complains of prison treatment of WikiLeaks’ Assange

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Court artist sketch by Elizabeth Cook, depicting Julian Assange, centre, in the dock with his defence team, Edward Fitzgerald QC, left, and Mark Simmons QC, at Belmarsh Magistrates’ Court in London, during an extradition hearing, Monday Feb. 24, 2020. The U.S. government began outlining its extradition case against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in a London court. (Elizabeth Cook/PA via AP)

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LONDON (AP) — A lawyer for Julian Assange complained Tuesday that the WikiLeaks founder was handcuffed 11 times, stripped naked twice and had court papers taken away on the first day of a hearing on his extradition to the United States.

Attorney Edward Fitzgerald told a judge that the treatment of Assange at London’s Belmarsh Prison “could be a contempt of this court.” The extradition hearing opened on Monday at Woolwich Crown Court, which is located next to the prison.

District Judge Vanessa Baraitser, who is hearing the case, said she had no power to act unless Assange became unable to participate in the proceedings, which are expected to last several months.

“If it comes to that, please let me know,” the judge said.

Another lawyer for Assange, Gareth Peirce, told the judge on Tuesday that Assange was “struggling” and finding it hard to concentrate.

Assange, 48, is wanted in the U.S. on espionage charges over the leaking of classified government documents a decade ago.

U.S. prosecutors accuse Assange of conspiring with U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to crack a password, hack into a Pentagon computer and release hundreds of thousands of secret diplomatic cables and military files on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

They allege that WikiLeaks’ publication of the unedited documents put U.S. intelligence sources who were mentioned in them at risk of torture of death.

Assange says he was acting as a journalist entitled to First Amendment protection. His lawyers argue that the U.S. charges — which carry a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison — are a politically motivated abuse of power.

Defense lawyers also deny that Assange put lives at risk. Attorney Mark Summers said that in 2010 WikiLeaks worked with international news organizations to publish the trove of files in edited form.

He said that the following year Assange phoned the White House to warn that a password published in a book about WikiLeaks by journalists from The Guardian newspaper — one of WikiLeaks’ then-media partners — could allow people to view the full unredacted cache of documents. Summers said Assange had warned that “unless we do something, then people’s lives are put at risk.”

WikiLeaks’ relationship with its media partners, which included The Guardian and The New York Times, soon soured, and in 2011 WikiLeaks began releasing large numbers of the uncensored documents.

The Guardian said it was “entirely wrong to say the Guardian’s 2011 WikiLeaks book led to the publication of unredacted U.S. government files.”

“The book contained a password which the authors had been told by Julian Assange was temporary and would expire and be deleted in a matter of hours,” the newspaper said in a statement. “The book also contained no details about the whereabouts of the files.”

Assange has been jailed in England since April 2019, when he was evicted from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. He took refuge in the embassy seven years earlier to avoid being sent to Sweden over allegations of rape and sexual assault.

A British court handed him a 50-week sentence for jumping bail in 2012.

The extradition hearing is expected to continue for the rest of the week, then take a break before resuming in May.

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