WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s political opinions put him in the “crosshairs” of the Donald Trump administration, an academic has told his extradition hearing.
Professor Paul Rogers told the Old Bailey the organisation’s revelations were “significant” in showing how the US coalition’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were going “wrong” despite public claims of their success.
The emeritus professor of peace studies at Bradford University said leaked documents published by WikiLeaks exposed details of an extra 15,000 civilians killed in Iraq.
“(It was) probably one of the most significant parts of the whole operation, putting into the public domain a very distressing aspect of the whole war,” he said.
“There is now greater caution among western countries, particularly the US and UK, to go to war, particularly at an early stage… I think that’s particularly down to WikiLeaks.”
Assange is fighting extradition to the US on an 18-count indictment, which alleges he plotted to hack computers and conspired to obtain and disclose national defence information.
If convicted, he faces a maximum possible penalty of 175 years in jail.
Political scientist Prof Rogers said Assange’s work through WikiLeaks as well as public speeches demonstrated his “libertarian” political views.
“The opinions and views of Mr Assange, demonstrated in his words and actions with the organisation WikiLeaks over many years, can be seen as very clearly placing him in the crosshairs of dispute with the philosophy of the Trump administration,” he concluded in a report submitted to the court.
Prof Rogers said Assange’s success in bringing things to public attention was seen as a “danger” to the Trump regime.
“This belief that Assange and what he stands for represents some kind of threat to normal political endeavour,” he explained.
Asked by Edward Fitzgerald QC, for Assange, if he believed the charges against Assange are motivated by “criminal justice concerns” or political considerations, Prof Rogers said: “I have to say it appears to be the latter.
“This does appear to be a political trial.”
The defence witness said the fact President Barack Obama’s administration did not prosecute Assange was also a factor in the Trump administration’s decision making.
“Mr Trump appears to take considerable personal antipathy to President Obama and what he did during his time in office,” he said.
“I think it’s reasonable to say that would be one reason, probably a significant one, as to why Mr Trump took this view.”
Trevor Timm, co-founder and executive director of the San Francisco-based Freedom of the Press Foundation, said his organisation had contributed around 100,000 US dollars to Assange’s legal costs.
He described the case as “a dire threat to press freedoms in the US” and agreed that it was the “thin end of the wedge to prosecute journalists”.
Appearing in court by video-link, he said: “Virtually every newspaper in the US has vehemently condemned the charges before the court today as a potentially clear and present danger to the freedom of the press in the US.
“This indictment is unconstitutional. WikiLeaks, like anybody else, has a first-amendment right to ask to see documents which potentially show corruption and illegality.
“If this was to go forward it would potentially criminalise all those other organisations.”
In a written statement, Mr Timm described the decision to charge Assange as “a massive and unprecedented escalation in Trump’s war on journalism”.
“The Trump administration is moving to explicitly criminalise national security journalism, and if this prosecution is allowed to go forward, dozens of reporters at the New York Times, Washington Post and elsewhere would also be in danger,” he added.
The defence witness suggested the charges relating to possessing classified material and working with sources to obtain such material could effectively “criminalise journalists” whether or not Assange was considered a journalist himself.
The court heard Timm had previously called for the leak of a classified CIA report allegedly detailing “systematic torture regime” in the 2000s.
James Lewis QC, for the US government, asked: “Do you yourself feel threatened if the prosecution went ahead?”
Mr Timm replied: “Myself, personally? I work on behalf of journalists in the US. I feel their rights are under threat. I myself am not a full-time national security reporter. My fear is on their behalf.”
Assange has been held on remand in Belmarsh prison since last September after serving a 50-week jail sentence for breaching his bail conditions while he was in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for almost seven years.
The hearing, which is expected to last for around four weeks, continues.