London: The US government and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will face off Monday in a high-security London courthouse, a decade after WikiLeaks infuriated American officials by publishing a trove of classified military documents.
A judge at Woolwich Crown Court will begin hearing arguments from lawyers for US authorities, who want to try Assange on espionage charges that carry a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison.
The extradition hearing follows years of subterfuge, diplomatic dispute and legal drama that have led the 48-year-old Australian from fame as an international secret-spiller through self-imposed exile inside the Ecuadorean' Embassy in London to incarceration in a maximum-security British prison.
Assange has been indicted in the US on 18 charges over the publication of classified documents. Prosecutors say he conspired with US army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to hack into a Pentagon computer and release hundreds of thousands of secret diplomatic cables and military files on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
US authorities say WikiLeaks' activities put American lives in danger. Assange argues he was acting as a journalist entitled to First Amendment protection, and says the leaked documents exposed US military wrongdoing. Among the files published by WikiLeaks was video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack by American forces in Baghdad that killed 11 people, including two Reuters journalists.
Journalism organisations and civil liberties groups, including Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders, say the charges against Assange set a chilling precedent for freedom of the press.
"What we have is an assault on journalism," left-wing Greek lawmaker Yanis Varoufakis said at an Assange support march in London on Saturday. "The only charge against Julian, hiding behind the nonsense of espionage, is a charge of journalism," he said.
Assange's legal saga began in 2010, when he was arrested in London at the request of Sweden, which wanted to question him about allegations of rape and sexual assault made by two women. He refused to go to Stockholm, saying he feared extradition or illegal rendition to the United States or the US prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In 2012, Assange sought refuge inside the Ecuadorean Embassy, where he was beyond the reach of US and Swedish authorities.
For seven years, Assange led an isolated and increasingly surreal existence in the tiny embassy, which occupies an apartment in an upscale block near the ritzy Harrod's department store.
Confined to the building, he occasionally emerged onto a small balcony to address supporters, and received visits from celebrity allies, including Lady Gaga and Baywatch actress Pamela Anderson.
The relationship between Assange and his hosts eventually soured, and he was evicted in April 2019. British police immediately arrested him for jumping bail in 2012.
Sweden dropped the sex crimes investigations in November because so much time had elapsed, but Assange remains in London's Belmarsh Prison as he awaits a decision on the US extradition request.
Supporters say the ordeal has harmed Assange's physical and mental health, leaving him with depression, dental problems and a serious shoulder ailment.
For his supporters around the world, Assange remains a hero. But many others are critical of the way WikiLeaks has published classified documents without redacting details that could endanger individuals.
WikiLeaks has also been accused of serving as a conduit for Russian misinformation, and Assange has alienated some supporters by dallying with populist politicians, including Brexit-promoter Nigel Farage.
Assange's legal team insists the American case against him is politically motivated. His lawyers say they will present evidence that the Australian was offered a pardon by the Trump administration if he agreed to say Russia wasn't involved in leaking Democratic National Committee emails that were published by WikiLeaks during the 2016 US election campaign.