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Assange’s extradition hearing to go ahead in May despite coronavirus concerns

Published: (Updated: ) in Australian News by .

In a bizarre hearing, a British judge has refused an application for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s extradition hearing to be adjourned until September due to the coronavirus pandemic.

A British judge has refused an application for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's extradition hearing to be adjourned until September due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In a bizarre hearing in the Westminster Magistrates' Court on Tuesday, neither Mr Assange, his lawyers nor US government lawyers were physically present. Instead they all dialled in.

District Judge Vanessa Baraister presided over a pair of telephones, with constant interruptions from robotic voices announcing people joining and leaving the conference call, while just five journalists and five members of the public watched on.

Defence lawyer Edward Fitzgerald argued, that it wouldn't be in the interests of open justice to hold the next hearing on May 18 given the ongoing lockdown.

He said his team couldn't meet their client in the locked-down Belmarsh prison and that phone calls and the post were insecure.

"We are not able to have any reasonable communication with him at present but his instructions are crucial," Fitzgerald told the court.

Mr Fitzgerald said a hearing would have to be by telephone, which would prevent media observing it properly.

He said Mr Assange would have to attend via videolink, putting him at risk of contracting the virus as he moved through the prison and used the shared facilities.

At least one prisoner from Belmarsh has died of coronavirus.

US government lawyer James Lewis was "neutral" on an adjournment, recognising "considerable practical difficulties" in holding a video hearing.

Judge Baraitser said the courts were still scheduled to be open in five weeks' time and it was her current intention to hear as much of the case as possible in May.

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Julian Assange supporters protest outside Woolwich Crown Court in London, Britain, 26 February 2020.

"This is an unpredictable situation but I cannot assume the courts will not operating normally by then," the judge said.

She will periodically review the viability of the May 18 hearing and said key witnesses could give evidence via video link.

Judge Baraister also turned down an application to maintain the anonymity of Assange's partner after she gave a witness statement at his unsuccessful bail application last week.

The judge said she wasn't at any particular risk of harm if she were named in court and that removing her anonymity was in the interests of open justice.

Assange labelled ‘ordinary criminal’

However, Judge Baraister is also set to maintain a restriction on publicly reporting her name.

The defence have until April 14 to lodge a judicial appeal against lifting her anonymity or the non-publication order will also be lifted.

The US government is trying to extradite Assange to face 17 charges of violating the Espionage Act and one of conspiring to commit computer intrusion over the leaking and publishing of thousands of classified US diplomatic and military files.

Some of those files revealed alleged US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The US charges carry a total sentence of 175 years' imprisonment.

A brief directions hearing schedule to Assange can consult his lawyers is due in Woolwich Crown Court on April 22, but his main extradition hearing will recommence on May 18.

Source: 9News

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