Historic Assange Trial to Hinge on Trump’s Political Motivations

(Bloomberg) -- In the 10 years since WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was arrested on sexual-assault charges, he’s fought Swedish prosecutors, skipped U.K. bail and irritated Ecuadorian diplomats.

On Monday, a four-week trial in London will begin to determine whether he can be shipped to the U.S., where he faces a maximum prison term of 175 years for releasing classified government documents. And he’s not going quietly.

The case will start days after Assange’s attorneys alleged that President Donald Trump instructed a former congressman to offer their client a pardon if he “played ball” and said Russia had nothing to do with Democratic National Committee leaks during the 2016 election.

The 48-year-old became one of the world’s most famous fugitives after his website published hundreds of thousands of secret American government documents. The site was also caught up in a U.S. investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, after publishing stolen emails that helped undercut Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Assange has been in London’s notorious Belmarsh prison for almost a year since he was unceremoniously arrested inside the Ecuadorian embassy for skipping bail. He fled to the Ecuadorian building in 2012 to avoid being sent to face the sexual-assault charges in Sweden. His eviction opened up the opportunity for American prosecutors to pursue him.

The Swedish case was dropped after authorities said the allegations had been weakened as the memories of witnesses faded.

His attorneys say they’ve struggled to ready his case under harsh conditions at Belmarsh, where some of Britain’s most high-profile and dangerous inmates are locked up.

“We are preparing for a case that the world superpower has had 10 years to prepare for,” Jen Robinson, one of Assange’s lawyers, said at a panel discussion earlier this month.

The allegations from Robinson about a possible pardon came after Trump offered clemency to political allies and condemned the sentencing of longtime associate Roger Stone. Stone, who helped serve as a conduit between WikiLeaks and the 2016 campaign, was convicted on several counts that sprang out of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and was sentenced Thursday to more than three years imprisonment.

Assange faces 18 counts related to endangering American national security by conspiring to get and release classified information. He’s accused of working with former Army intelligence officer Chelsea Manning to get classified documents from databases containing about 90,000 Afghanistan war-related activity reports, 400,000 Iraq war-related reports and 250,000 State Department cables.

The trial will last a week before adjourning until May for another three-week session. It will be held at a court adjoining Belmarsh.

Political Ramifications

Assange’s lawyers have said that they’ll argue that the Australian shouldn’t be extradited for what they say is a political offense. They will say that his actions weren’t illegal in the U.K. and that agencies have conspired to abuse the legal process against him.

Assange’s legal team must show the political motivation behind his prosecution means either that the case is irredeemably tainted or that it’s impossible for him to get a fair trial in the U.S., according to British lawyer Nick Vamos, who led the Crown Prosecution Service’s extradition team for four years.

“It’s a very difficult argument to succeed on,” he said.

After praising WikiLeaks during his election campaign and urging the release of more Democratic emails, Trump has backed away from Assange and the organization, telling reporters that the group wasn’t his “thing.”

In 2017, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said WikiLeaks was more like a “hostile intelligence service.”

The case could also test the relationship between U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Trump. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called for Johnson to oppose the extradition in Parliament last week, adding that “this deep disparity with the U.S. is about to be laid bare.”

Johnson refused to comment on the case but said the government supports the safeguarding of journalists.

Assange’s lawyers “will make a lot of noise about politics but I don’t think it will get very far,” Vamos said. The argument of bad faith, centered on Robinson’s allegations that secret recordings of Assange’s legal meetings were given to the CIA, may get further.

“They’ll say that U.S. authorities broke all the rules to get him and that a U.K. court shouldn’t lend itself to a flagrant breach of international rules,” he said.

Poor Health

The United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, who has visited Assange in jail, said earlier this month that the WikiLeaks founder is suffering from intense psychological trauma and that he was afraid Assange might die in prison.

But at a preliminary hearing this week, Assange appeared via video-link and cut a healthier-looking figure with trimmed hair. He answered only to confirm his name and date of birth.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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