A London court has ordered that the US can continue with extradition hearings against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in May despite the Covid-19 coronavirus restrictions.
Lawyers for Assange argued on 7 April that they would not be able to prepare an adequate defence for Assange, with the coronavirus lockdown expected to continue well into next month.
Barrister Edward Fitzgerald, representing Assange, said his lawyers had been unable to communicate with their client or take instructions from Assange since before the lockdown.
“It is an exceptional situation we find ourselves in. We cannot do justice to Mr Assange if the case goes ahead in May,” he told the court.
District Judge Vanessa Baraitser said that the case should be heard quickly and that the second part of Assange’s extradition hearing was still five weeks away.
“It is my current contention to hear as much of this case as possible in May. Mr Assange is in custody, there is some urgency for this to be heard,” she said.
Baraitser added that the use of video links were entirely appropriate to enable Assange and witnesses to attend the case and give evidence. “If there is a need for a third and final hearing, that can take place in July,” she said.
Lawyers presented arguments by telephone
The 7 April hearing at Westminster Magistrates’ Court took place under conditions of lockdown in a sparsely populated court room.
Assange, who is being held at Belmarsh Prison, was unable to attend the hearing through video link because of Covid-19 restrictions. Lawyers and many journalists dialled into the hearing by phone.
Fitzgerald told the court that Assange’s legal team had been unable to discuss the case with Assange, either by phone or video link, since before the coronavirus lockdown.
“We have not been able to have any reasonable communications with him at present. We can’t have access to him physically, can’t have any realistic access by video, and sending in correspondence involves long delays and – in some cases – he does not get it,” he said.
Any reasonable access, or any access at all, to Assange was unlikely during the coronavirus outbreak. “The government restrictions on this grave crisis mean we have not been able to take instructions,” said Fitzgerald.
Extradition should be delayed to September
Fitzgerald argued that extradition should be delayed until September to allow Assange to participate in the proceedings and to prepare a defence. “We say the only way he could have a fair hearing is to be present in court, and to see the witnesses,” he added.
The Magistrates’ Court has no provision for live streaming. If there are witnesses being heard by video link, it would not be possible for Assange to see or hear what is going on in court unless he could attend in person, the court was told.
“We know the Prime Minister had predicted that the lockdown might continue as much as 12 weeks. That will take us well beyond the start of the hearing, and any time we could reasonable prepare for a full hearing,” said Fitzgerald.
He added that going ahead with the case during the lockdown would interfere with the principles of open justice. “There are real issues of open justice. It is impossible to see a situation in May where the press and public can be present,” he said.
James Lewis, representing the US government, said that he was neutral on when the hearing took place. “We recognise there are considerable difficulties for defence, and considerable practical difficulties,” he said.
The Wikileaks founder has well-documented problems with clinical depression and has been speaking to a therapist once a week. This can no longer happen, said Fitzgerald. “There are no therapy sessions, no religious services, and no visits from his family,” he added.
The prosecution lawyers have been unable to complete a psychiatric report on Assange because a medical expert has been unable to visit Assange in prison.
There have been “real problems” for Assange, who has other health conditions, accessing video links to speak to lawyers or attend court hearings.
“He is vulnerable every time he goes to a video link, because he has to queue, to wait. The video link is used by many others,” said Fitzgerald.
It has not been possible to conduct a single video link since government restrictions were introduced on 20 March.
“This is not a case where second best will do, where we try to muddle through – it is a case where we are entitled to have his instructions,” Fitzgerald added.
The barrister told the court that the defence team had been having difficulties gaining access to Assange since before the pandemic. “The difficulties are insuperable in the current crisis,” he said.
Assange considers judicial review to protect identity of partner
Mark Summers QC, representing Assange, asked the court to continue reporting restrictions to protect the identity of Assange’s partner, who had given a witness statement in support of an application to release him on bail.
Fitzgerald earlier told the court that Assange’s partner was at risk of harassment, and that the court should consider the privacy of her two young children who were not yet at school. The judge said that there was a strong public interest in contemporaneous reporting of extradition hearings.
The court heard evidence last week that Assange had gone to great lengths to shelter his partner and her children from “the glare of the media”, and that Assange had a strong incentive to remain in the UK with her and her children.
Fitzgerald pointed to evidence that the US attempted to take a DNA sample from one of the children’s nappies, but Baraitser said that evidence had not been tested in court.
“There is no evidence before court that any US agency intends harm to Assange’s partner,” she said. “The evidence provided by the witness is the sort routinely provided by a witness in application of bail. In my judgement, the balance falls in favour of open justice.”
The judge gave Assange’s legal team until 4pm on 14 April to lodge a judicial review, otherwise reporting and anonymity restrictions would be lifted.
The court has scheduled an administrative hearing at Belmarsh for 22 April to give Assange a chance to instruct his lawyers. The hearing is “in the hope that, during that morning, additional instructions can be heard from Assange”, Baraitser said.