Julian Assange appeared today at Woolwich Crown Court to begin his fight against extradition to the US. Mr Assange is charged with 17 counts of conspiracy, the obtaining and disclosure of national defence information contrary to the Espionage Act 1917, and one further count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. If convicted, Mr Assange faces a maximum (consecutive) prison term of 175 years’ imprisonment.
Mr Assange’s lawyers argue that the charges against him are political in nature and that ‘extraneous considerations’ are a bar to his extradition. The US-UK extradition treaty does not permit extradition for ‘political’ offences if the individual’s trial or sentence may be prejudiced as a result of their political opinions (this bar set out in section 81 of the Extradition Act 2003).
It is expected that Mr Assange’s health will also be a put forward as an argument against extradition. There have been reports of his deteriorating physical and mental state while in custody and at a hearing at Westminster Magistrates’ Court on 21 October 2019, he appeared to struggle to recall his name and said he could not think. Extradition may be barred under section 91 of the 2003 Act in cases were the mental or physical health of the requested person is such that it would be oppressive or unjust to extradite him/her.
A further potential argument, that Mr Assange cannot receive a fair trial in the US, may be raised, although the threshold for demonstrating a breach of Article 6 of the ECHR is high. The starting point for a UK court will be that it is possible for Mr Assange to receive a fair trial in the US, and it is a high hurdle to overcome such a presumption.
At the end of this week’s hearing, Mr Assange’s case will be adjourned to 18 May 2020, when a further three-week hearing will begin. Judgment is expected in June 2020 but may be appealed to the High Court.