Extradition hearing for WikiLeaks' Assange to be split in two parts

LONDON (Reuters) - The London hearing to decide whether WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange can be extradited to the United States to face charges including spying will be split in two, with the second half delayed until May, a judge ruled on Thursday.

FILE PHOTO: WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange leaves Westminster Magistrates Court in London, Britain January 13, 2020. REUTERS/Simon Dawson

Assange, 48, faces 18 counts in the United States including conspiring to hack government computers and violating an espionage law. He could spend decades in prison if convicted.

Following applications from Assange’s legal team and lawyers representing the United States, Judge Vanessa Baraitser at Westminster Magistrates’ Court agreed that his extradition hearing would start on Feb. 24 for a week, with the remaining three weeks taking place from May 18.

Both sides in the case argued that they needed more time to prepare for the hearings and gather evidence. Assange’s lawyers said it was hard to speak to their client, who is currently being held at Belmarsh Prison in east London and appeared on Thursday by videolink.

“We simply can’t get in as we require to see Mr Assange and take instructions ... we need time to deal with that,” his lawyer Edward Fitzgerald said.

The first part of the full hearing in February at Woolwich Crown Court will cover arguments that the extradition is politically motivated and an abuse of process.

Clair Dobbin, the lawyer representing the U.S. authorities, said they would oppose allowing Assange to call anonymous witnesses as his legal team intends. The hearing will also hear psychiatric evidence about his mental state.

To some, Assange is a hero for exposing what supporters cast as abuse of power by modern states and for championing free speech. To others, he is a dangerous rebel who has undermined U.S. security by WikiLeaks having published hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. cables.

In 2012, Assange took refuge in Ecuador’s London embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden where he was accused of sex crimes which he denied and which were later dropped, saying he feared he would ultimately be sent on to the United Sates.

After seven years, he was dragged from the embassy in 2019 and jailed for 50 weeks for skipping bail before the U.S. launched its extradition request.

Baraitser was clearly unhappy about the “lengthy” three-month delay to the hearing but reluctantly agreed, telling both sides they would need to stick to the amended timetable.

Reporting by Michael Holden and Elizabeth Howcroft; editing by Stephen Addison