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Assange complains he cannot follow U.S. extradition hearing

LONDON (Reuters) - Julian Assange complained he was struggling to follow his extradition hearing on Wednesday as his legal team argued Britain should not send him to the United States because the charges against him were politically motivated.

FILE PHOTO: A protester holds a sign outside Woolwich Crown Court, ahead of a hearing to decide whether Assange should be extradited to the United States, in London, Britain, February 24, 2020. REUTERS/Hannah Mckay

Assange, 48, faces 18 counts in the U.S. including conspiring to hack government computers and violating an espionage law for publishing thousands of classified diplomatic cables. He faces decades in prison if convicted.

But the Wikileaks founder complained he was struggling to hear proceedings from his position in the dock at Woolwich Crown Court and asked to be able to sit with his lawyers.

“I am as much a participant in these proceedings as I am at Wimbledon (tennis),” he told the judge. “I cannot communicate with my lawyers or ask them for clarifications.”

On the third day of the hearing, Assange said he was also unable to communicate privately with his lawyers because of microphones in the dock and unnamed U.S. embassy officials in the courtroom.

Assange’s legal team will submit a formal application for him to leave the dock on Thursday after judge Vanessa Baraitser said such a move was not a risk assessment she could make and questioned whether he would still technically be in custody if allowed out of the dock.

She said most defendants normally sit in the dock and that she could not make exceptions but she did however ask Assange’s legal team to make a formal application that he should be able to move.

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James Lewis, for the U.S. government, said he would not object if Assange were allowed to sit in the well of the court handcuffed to a security official.

“POLITICAL CHARGES”

Earlier, Assange’s lawyer, Edward Fitzgerald, said extradition for political offences was not allowed under the Anglo-US Extraditions Treaty set up in 2003.

Violent crimes and terrorism were the only type of political crimes that the treaty allows people to be extradited for, he said.

His legal team compared Assange to the British Iraq war whistleblower Katharine Gun and Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish artillery officer in the French army who in 1894 was convicted of treason and shipped to a penal colony off South America’s Atlantic coast.

Fitzgerald also argued that the court needed to consider various protections enshrined in both international law and the European Convention of Human Rights.

But Lewis for the U.S. disagreed with the claim that espionage is a political offense.

He said earlier this week that Assange had put lives at risk by disseminating classified materials through Wikileaks.

The United States asked Britain to extradite Assange last year after he was pulled from the Ecuador embassy in London, where he had spent seven years holed up to avoid being sent to Sweden over sex crime allegations which have since been dropped.

Editing by Stephen Addison

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