Wikileaks founder Julian Assange’s legal team has requested adjournment of his US extradition hearing to allow for adequate preparation of his defence, amidst concerns for his health as COVID-19 reportedly spreads at Belmarsh prison. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reiterates the need for Assange’s immediate release before his health is further jeopardised, and calls for the extradition hearing to be postponed until lockdown conditions are lifted.
District judge Vanessa Baraitser presided, and was joined in the courtroom by legal counsel. Assange was expected to attend via videolink, but he did not take part, and his lawyer Edward Fitzgerland QC reported that he had received medical advice that it would not be safe for him to be taken to the video room at Belmarsh prison. Assange also did not participate in the last hearing on 7 April, as his lawyers reported he was unwell.
On 27 April, a hearing took place at Westminster Magistrates’ Court to consider the application of Julian Assange’s legal team to adjourn his US extradition hearing. The full hearing had been scheduled to resume on 18 May, when three weeks of evidence were expected to be heard, following the presentation of legal arguments in February.
“We are alarmed by the continued disregard for Julian Assange’s health, particularly now with the added risk of his being exposed to coronavirus in detention. He should be immediately released before his health is further jeopardised, and the court must ensure that he is able to participate fully in future hearings”, said RSF UK Bureau Director Rebecca Vincent.
The defence argued for adjournment of the full extradition hearing to allow for sufficient time to adequately prepare Assange’s defence, noting that his lawyers did not currently have access to him in prison, and could not fulfill their professional obligations to him in these circumstances. They also sought to ensure his participation in proceedings, and to allow for open justice through ensuring access to the press and other observers.
The judge acknowledged that in light of the continued coronavirus lockdown, the scheduled 18 May date for the resumption of the full extradition hearing would be “uncertain at best”. She agreed to vacate that date, and scheduled an administrative hearing on 4 May to set a date to resume the full hearing. She noted that the next period the Woolwich Crown Court would be available for three consecutive weeks would be starting 2 November.
RSF observed the fifty-minute hearing via teleconference, which was also the access option provided to the media. The telephone connection did not allow for adequate monitoring of the hearing, which was difficult to hear — an issue which required the judge’s attention and interrupted proceedings.
“Today’s experience attempting to remotely observe proceedings in Julian Assange’s case was extremely frustrating, and shows that resuming the full extradition hearing in such conditions would not allow for open justice. This case is of tremendous public interest, and the press and NGO observers must be able to scrutinise proceedings. We call for the full hearing to be postponed until lockdown conditions are lifted”, said Vincent.
Assange’s legal team had previously applied for his release on bail due to health concerns, as his pre-existing medical conditions could make him more susceptible to contracting coronavirus. Judge Baraitser denied the bail application on 25 March. COVID-19 is now reportedly spreading in Belmarsh prison, where one inmate has so far been reported to have died from the virus.
The UK is ranked 35th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index, having dropped two places since 2019, in part due to Assange’s disproportionate sentencing for breaking bail, and his continued detention.