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In prison, Julian Assange is struggling to prepare his extradition trial

Julian Assange leaving the Westminster Magistrates Court in London, January 13. Dominic Lipinski / AP

In April 2019, the image went around the world: Julian Assange, the thinking head of the WikiLeaks site, is extirpated by the police from the Embassy of Ecuador in London, where he has been a refugee for more than six years. Forcibly taken into a police vehicle, he heads for Belmarsh prison, a large prison complex not far from the Thames, east of the British capital.

Nine months later, he is still imprisoned there, pending his extradition trial, which begins on February 24. The United States is claiming him for 18 counts. Accused in particular of spying for having published in 2010, with several newspapers including The world, secret American documents, Julian Assange faces a 175-year prison sentence.

Read also US decides to indict Julian Assange for spying

Health concerns

His team of lawyers has just won a tiny first victory: the 48-year-old Australian is no longer in solitary confinement. A spokesperson for his organization said, Friday, January 24, that he had been moved to a “Medical wing” Belmarsh prison, partly under pressure, according to this spokesperson, of his fellow prisoners.

Satisfaction for the lawyers and supporters of Julian Assange, who have multiplied the alerts on his state of health. Government shaker journalist with face puffed up by stress and lost 15 kg since the start of his stay in prison, according to his father, quoted by Paris Match, who visited him recently.

In November, based in particular on the conclusions of the UN rapporteur on torture, sixty doctors had published an open letter which said their “Serious concern about the state of physical and mental health” of the person concerned. Addressed to Priti Patel, the British Home Secretary, and Diane Abbott, her counterpart in the shadow cabinet, the missive heard “Draw the attention of public opinion and the world to this serious situation”. In the absence of care, wrote the signatories of the letter, “We really fear, on the basis of the information currently available, that Mr. Assange may die in prison”.

Read also “We fear that Julian Assange could die in prison”, alert more than 60 doctors

In October, during a procedural hearing in London – his first public appearance since his arrest -, the Australian had indeed been disoriented and weakened. With a difficult speech, according to journalists present on the spot, Julian Assange had protested the treatment to which he was subjected.

“I can't think properly. I don't understand how this can be fair. This superpower [les Etats-Unis] has had ten years to prepare for this case and I can't even access my documents “, he said, according to the press and WikiLeaks.

Julian Assange then reappeared in London court on January 13 for a new technical hearing. There, he simply confirmed his identity and expressed his misunderstanding about the details of the procedure targeting him, according to press agencies present on the spot. The activist was able to count, as at every hearing, on a handful of demonstrators who came to show their support. On that day, the popular singer M.I.A. had even made the trip.

Difficulties of his lawyers

In December, Julian Assange spoke by videoconference, this time as a witness, to another judge – Spanish, this one. This latest investigation into a Spanish company mandated by the Ecuadorian authorities to ensure the security of their embassy in London, between 2015 and 2018. WikiLeaks filed a complaint against this company, UC Global, for having posed, from 2017, cameras and microphones into the toilets and the fire extinguisher in a meeting room in the building. According to WikiLeaks, this surveillance of Julian Assange has secretly fueled the American intelligence services.

The Australian’s lawyers are sure to use the case, which may have compromised the confidentiality of their dealings with Julian Assange, to combat the extradition of their client. Mr. Assange’s defense team tried to postpone the hearing scheduled to open in London on February 24 to the utmost, and repeatedly denounced the difficulties encountered in interviewing their client. “We just can't go back when we have to see Mr. Assange and get his instructions”said Edward Fitzgerald, one of his lawyers, Thursday, January 23.

On that day, a British judge granted the Australian and his lawyers a small victory by deciding to split the upcoming extradition hearing into two. In addition to the hearing week scheduled for London in late February, the British courts are now planning three more, which will take place in May. Justice therefore believes it needs a whole month of debate: proof of the sensitivity and complexity of the question it will have to decide.

“Discourage investigations”

Meanwhile, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks continue to receive many marks of support. Since the United States Department of Justice announced that it would prosecute Julian Assange for espionage, just after his arrest in London in May 2019, many press organizations have denounced these accusations, which are considered to be contrary to press freedom.

In a tribune at Washington PostOn Monday 27 January, whistleblower Edward Snowden compared the accusations against journalist Glenn Greenwald made by the Brazilian justice system and the charges currently pending against Julian Assange. This is, he writes, “Attempts to discourage the most incisive investigations of the most courageous journalists and to create a precedent which could freeze the pens of the most irascible of them”.

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