Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, will begin his fight against extradition to the US in a London court on Monday, arguing that the spying charges against him are politically motivated.
Mr Assange faces 18 criminal charges in the US and is accused of working with former US army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning over the leak of hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks in 2010.
He faces one count of computer hacking as well as 17 allegations of violating the 1917 Espionage Act, which leaves him facing a maximum prison term of 175 years if convicted.
Mr Assange’s lawyers are set to argue at Woolwich Crown Court that he should not be extradited because the alleged offences are “political” in nature.
They will argue that the US-UK extradition treaty has an exception that prevents extradition for so-called political offences, including espionage, if an individual’s trial might be prejudiced because of his or her political opinions.
Mr Assange’s lawyers will also present other material, including claims he cannot have a fair trial in the US, as well as medical evidence that they say shows that he is not fit to stand trial.
The court is also likely to hear details of claims that surfaced last week over a visit by a former US Republican congressman, Dana Rohrabacher, to Mr Assange in 2017 while he was holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London.
Mr Assange’s lawyers claimed at a hearing at Westminster magistrates’ court on Wednesday that during the visit Mr Rohrabacher had, “on instructions” from President Donald Trump, allegedly offered their client a pardon. In exchange, Mr Assange would have to say that Russia played no role in the leaking of Democratic National Committee emails in 2016 ahead of the US presidential election, according to the claims. The series of embarrassing emails was hacked before being published by WikiLeaks.
Both Mr Rohrabacher and the White House have denied any offer of a pardon was made.
Mr Assange’s supporters said his prosecution by the US raised “profound issues”, was an “outrageous and full-frontal assault on journalistic rights” and was being pursued as a warning to journalists and publishers.
Carrie DeCell, staff attorney at the US-based Knight First Amendment Institute, said this was the first time a publisher had been indicted by the US government using the Espionage Act. “It raises very serious concerns about the application of the Espionage Act to a broad swath of reporting in this country,” she said.
Mr Assange’s high-profile extradition hearing comes less than a year after the Australian was hauled out of the Ecuadorean embassy by British police and arrested as the US unsealed criminal charges against him.
He had been hiding there for seven years after jumping bail in relation to a 2010 extradition request from Sweden over claims of rape and sexual assault.
Since then Mr Assange has been held in Belmarsh prison, a high-security jail in south-east London, as he served a 50-week sentence for violating his 2012 bail conditions. He completed that sentence last year but has remained in prison pending the US extradition hearing.
He no longer faces any criminal charges from Sweden, which dropped its investigation last year.
Nick Vamos, former head of special crime and extradition at the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service and now partner at law firm Peters & Peters, said it was a high hurdle to argue that Mr Assange would not have a fair trial in the US.
“It’s a difficult argument to win. The UK courts will take the starting point that it is possible for an individual to get a fair trial in the US and that the criminal justice system there is able to protect a defendant from any political interference,” he said.
“It’s a unique case because of the number of issues involved. His best arguments may be to do with health and whether the US prison system can protect him from a deterioration in his health,” he added.
District Judge Vanessa Baraitser, who is hearing the case, does not have to determine Mr Assange’s guilt or innocence of the charges but simply decide whether his extradition meets the correct “dual criminality” legal test: namely, that the allegations of which he is accused constituted a criminal offence in the UK at the time.
After this week’s hearing the case will be adjourned until May 18, when it will run for a further three weeks. A judgment is expected in June but that can be appealed against by the losing side, triggering a long legal process.
Mr Assange is represented by a top legal team including Edward Fitzgerald of Doughty Street Chambers, and Gareth Peirce, a human rights lawyer at Birnberg Peirce.
The US government will be represented by James Lewis, the barrister who advised Navinder Singh Sarao, the trader accused of contributing to the 2010 flash crash and who lost his extradition fight to the US in 2016.
Mr Assange’s case comes amid growing complaints from British MPs that the UK-US extradition treaty is unfairly weighted towards the US.