Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, appeared in a British court on Thursday for an initial hearing on whether he will be extradited to the United States to face prosecution in connection with what United States are calling one of the most serious leaks of classified material in American history.
Assange, 47, made a brief appearance by video link in Westminster Magistrates Court in London from Belmarsh Prison in another part of the city. A day earlier, he had been sentenced to 50 weeks in prison for bail-jumping.
The hearing on Thursday lasted just a few minutes. Assange told the judge he did not wish to surrender himself to be prosecuted in the United States for what he called “journalism that has won many awards,” according to The Associated Press. His next hearing, in what promises to be a long extradition fight, is scheduled for May 30.
Freedom of Speech
The American indictment against him stems from a leak in 2010 of hundreds of thousands of classified documents, mostly related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that proved the United States and its allies did not respect the rules of war and committed crimes against humanity. Assange faces a charge of conspiring with the former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to hack into a Pentagon computer network, a crime punishable by up to five years in an American prison.
Around thirty activists gathered outside the court to protest against his potential extradition, waving signs that read “Free Julian Assange” and “Is this all just about shutting us all up?” as they demanded his release.
The case has certainly fueled debate about whether the prosecution of Mr. Assange infringes on the American Constitution’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech. He says that he acted as a journalist in publishing material leaked by Ms. Manning to WikiLeaks and that he had nothing to do with the hacking.
But the Justice Department says Mr. Assange helped Ms. Manning break a code to gain access to the classified network.
Ms. Manning was convicted of espionage in an American court and received a 35-year prison sentence. She spent nearly seven years behind bars before her punishment was commuted by President Barack Obama in 2017.
Legal experts say that Mr. Assange could face additional charges if extradited but that the extradition process could take years. The WikiLeaks founder has long fought against being transferred to the United States, citing comments from officials in Washington calling for the death penalty to be considered for his crimes.
Cristina Navarrete, 66, was among the crowd of supporters outside the court on Thursday. She called the hearing “a mockery” because no members of the public were allowed into the courtroom, though some journalists were admitted.