Judge warns Julian Assange over outbursts in court during US extradition hearing

John Shipton, the father of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has been warned his extradition hearing will continue without him if he continues to speak from the dock.

The judge, Vanessa Baraitser, briefly adjourned proceedings at the Old Bailey after the 49-year-old interrupted the evidence of US human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith on Tuesday morning.

The outburst could not be heard by journalists, who are following proceedings on a video link from another court.

“The witness must be allowed to give their evidence free from interruption,” the judge told Assange after he was allowed to speak with his lawyers.

“You will hear things, no doubt many things, you disagree with during these proceedings.”

She added: “If you interrupt proceedings it is open to me to proceed in your absence. This is obviously something I would not wish to do.

“You must allow the witness to speak without interruption so they can give their evidence.”

The defence witness described how Wikileaks helped expose alleged US war crimes in Afghanistan and shone a light on Guantanamo Bay.

Stafford Smith, who founded the Reprieve organisation, said: “I say this more in sadness than anger. I would never have believed that my government would do what it did.

“We are talking about criminal offences of torture, kidnapping, rendition, holding people without trial.”

He said leaks had revealed the US allegations against clients held in Guantanamo, which he was then able to prove as “nonsense”.

But cross-examining, James Lewis QC, for the US, suggested that Assange was not being prosecuted in the US for publishing cables, which had previously been reported in the New York Times and Washington Post, or hundreds of thousands of others.

He said: “Mr Assange is not being prosecuted for publishing those cables or anything other than the documents which contain the names of informants which put their lives at risk.”

Professor Mark Feldstein, of the University of Maryland, told the court via videolink from the US that President Donald Trump‘s “poisonous vitriol” against the press suggests the prosecution of Assange is “rife with political motives”.

In a report presented to the court, the academic concluded the decision to pursue Assange was politically motivated, after the previous Obama regime decided not to bring charges.

Professor Feldstein said that the previous Obama administration could not to bring charges against Assange because of the First Amendment protecting freedom of speech.

But soon after Trump came to power, FBI director James Comey brought up the issue of plugging leaks, and suggested “putting a head on a pike as a message”, Professor Feldstein said.

He instructed his attorney general to investigate “criminal leaks” of “fake” news reports that had embarrassed the White House, according to the witness.

He cited press reports that the new administration soon “unleashed an aggressive campaign” against Assange.

CIA director Mike Pompeo publicly attacked Wikileaks as a “hostile intelligence service” that uses the First Amendment to “shield” himself from “justice”, Professor Feldstein said in his report.

Cross-examining, James Lewis QC, for the US government, suggested that Professor Feldstein had omitted from his report that the investigation instigated under ex-president Obama was still “ongoing”.

The witness told the court the “proof was in the pudding” by the fact no charges were brought under Obama.

Professor Feldstein agreed that no journalists were above the law, as seen in the high profile News Of The World phone-hacking case.

Lewis said the charges against Assange which related to publishing were limited to names of individuals who were “at risk of serious harm” if their names were made public.

The lawyer asked: “Do you think all the data should have been published unredacted?”

Professor Feldstein replied: “No.”

Lewis said: “You say in your report that this is a politically-motivated prosecution. Would you agree there is a factual basis for making the charges in this case?”

Professor Feldstein replied: “I’m not in a position to judge the evidential factual allegations in the indictment.”

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.

On Monday, he was arrested in the cells at the Old Bailey over a new US indictment lodged in June, including 18 charges of plotting to hack computers and conspiring to obtain and disclose national defence information.

If convicted, he faces a maximum possible penalty of 175 years in jail.

Assange’s partner, Stella Moris, was seen arriving at the Old Bailey for the hearing. She has launched a crowdfunded campaign to fight his extradition to the US which has raised more than £100,000 so far.

Assange’s father, John Shipton, posed in front of a poster outside the Old Bailey (pictured) with the messages “Don’t extradite Assange” and “Journalism is not a crime” ahead of proceedings.

The hearing, which is expected to last for around four weeks, continues.

Picture: PA Media

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