Julian Assange fights back tears and describes living 'in fear' during court appearance over extradition case

Tristan Kirk
Supporters of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange demonstrate outside Westminster Magistrates' Court in London: AP

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange struggled to say his own name as he appeared in the dock facing extradition to the US.

The 48-year-old is wanted in the United States over claims that he was involved in the hacking and leak of a mass of classified documents in 2010 through the Wikileaks website.

But Assange says he is the victim of a politically-driven campaign by the Trump administration against journalists and whistleblowers, and claims his privileged discussions with lawyers have been spied on by the US.

Appearing at Westminster magistrates court this morning, Assange stuttered as he struggled to tell the court his name and there was a long pause before he gave his date of birth.

Assange appeared at court clean-shaven with his white hair swept back, holding a large bundle of paperwork and wearing a dark blue suit, white shirt, and light blue sweatshirt.

Assange at a court appearance earlier this year (PA)

Asked at the end if he understood what had happened in court, Assange replied: “not really” and complained that he was battling against a “superpower” with “unlimited resources”.

Fighting back tears, Assange said he has been denied access to a computer behind bars and is “in fear of my life". He called the case “not equitable” and added: “I can’t think properly.”

His lawyer, Mark Summers QC, asked the court to delay the planned extradition hearing in February next year, saying more time was needed to gather evidence.

He said there is a criminal case ongoing in Spain where alleged agents for the US government are accused of spying on Assange’s computers and telephones as he talked to his legal team within the Ecuadorian Embassy.

“The American state has been actively engaged in intruding on privileged discussions between Mr Assange and his lawyers in the embassy”, said Mr Summers.

Those supporting Julian Assange, right, were outside court as the WikiLeaks founder appeared in the dock (AP)

“It’s an invasion of legal privilege”, adding that the claims “speak to the nature of the trial Mr Assange faces in due course”.

Mr Summers said Assange believes the case against him, first lodged under President Barack Obama, has been “reinvigorated” since Trump’s election.

“It’s a political attempt to signal to journalists the consequences of publishing information”, he said. “It’s legally unprecedented.”

James Lewis QC, representing the US, opposed a delay, and District Judge Vanessa Baraitser refused to push the hearing back.

Assange was jailed for 50 weeks earlier this year after he emerged from more than seven years inside the Ecuadorian Embassy, after being found guilty of failing to turn up for court in 2012.

A man stands outside court with a sign saying 'freedom for Assange' (AP)

He had been poised to be extradited to Sweden over sex assault claims, but sought refuge in the central London embassy while on bail.

Assange insisted throughout his self-imposed incarceration that he would be transferred on to the US to face trial over his WikiLeaks activities if he was sent to Sweden.

After completing his sentence last month, he was remanded in custody to await the outcome of the latest extradition battle.

Assange faces 18 charges on a US indictment, alleging he worked with military analyst Chelsea Manning to hack computer systems and leak vast amounts of classified State Department and Pentagon documents.

Wikileaks published hundreds of thousands of internal documents and military cables in 2010, relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and detainees being held at Guantanemo Bay.

It is said Assange was engaged with Manning in “real-time” attempts to crack passwords, and the leak exposed the names of US military sources and put them in danger.

Assange is accused of 17 espionage charges and one count of computer hacking. He denies the charges and is due to have a full extradition hearing at Belmarsh magistrates court starting on February 24.

A further case management hearing will take place on December 19.