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WORLD | 13-04-2019 11:28

From Embassy to prison: Julian Assange settles in for legal battle after arrest

WikiLeaks founder spent yesterday in a British jail at the outset of a likely lengthy extradition battle following the dramatic end to his seven-year stay in Ecuador’s London Embassy.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has exchanged a small room at the Ecuadorean Embassy in central London for a cell at Belmarsh Prison, a grim institution in the southeast part of the city where he, nevertheless, has certain advantages he didn’t have when he was holed up, hiding from the law.

WikiLeaks editor-inchief Kristinn Hrafnsson said yesterday that the ailing Assange should finally be able to receive medical care and will be able to meet with his lawyers more easily than he could in the Embassy, where a feud with Ecuadorean authorities had led to a ban on most guests. The 47-year-old Assange has extreme shoulder pain and tooth pain, Hrafnsson said.

For nearly seven years, Assange lived in the Embassy without taking a step outside for fear of being arrested and sent to the US to be prosecuted.

On Thursday, British authorities dragged the Australian native from the Embassy after being invited in by the Ecuadorean ambassador. US authorities later announced charges against him of conspiring to break into a Pentagon computer, setting up what is expected to be an epic legal and political battle over whether to extradite him to the United States.

His arrest became possible after Ecuador revoked his political asylum, complaining that he was an obnoxious houseguest who didn’t clean up after his cat and that WikiLeaks was plotting to blackmail the Latin American country’s president, Lenín Moreno.

At the prison, where he is being held while the extradition process plays out, “there are medical facilities there, access to dental care I would assume, and a garden to go out into,” Hrafnsson said. “But what’s on my mind is there’s an innocent man in prison for doing his job as a journalist, and that’s an outrage.”

POLITICAL DEBATE

The political debate over whether to extradite Assange is already taking shape, with Britain’s opposition Labour Party urging the government not to hand him over to Washington. Party leader Jeremy Corbyn tweeted that the US is prosecuting Assange because he exposed “evidence of atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The politicisation of the case reflects the clashing views of Assange as either a heroic whistleblower or a willing stooge who helped the Russians boost Donald Trump’s presidential campaign by publishing hacked emails that embarrassed his rival, Hillary Clinton.

Assange’s bid to fend off extradition could take years and involve several layers of appeal. He could also face a second extradition request if Sweden decides to pursue a rape case against him that was suspended in 2017.

If found guilty of the US charges, Assange could get five years in prison. His next court appearance is set for May 2 via video link.

Extradition lawyer Ben Keith said the court will not assess the evidence against Assange to determine his guilt or innocence but will scrutinise whether the offence he is accused of in the US would be a crime in Britain. “The most likely outcome is that he will be extracted,” he said.

If Assange loses in court, he could appeal several times and ultimately try to have his case heard at the European Court of Human Rights — unless Britain has left the EU by that time.

The decision to seek the extradition of Assange marked a dramatic new approach by the US government, a shift that was signalled in the early days of the Trump administration.

Ex-US president Barack Obama’s Justice De - partment had extensive inter na l debates about whether to charge Assange amid concerns the case might not hold up in court and would be viewed as an attack on journalism.

Washington won’t say why they decided now to charge Assange with a single count of computer intrusion conspiracy that dates back to 2010. Back then, WikiLeaks is alleged to have helped Chelsea Manning, then a US Army intelligence analyst, crack a password that gave her higher-level access to classified computer networks.

Nor will they say whether the Obama administration had the same evidence that forms the basis of the indictment, or whether Assange will face additional counts if he is extradited to the United States.

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