Former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis visits Julian Assange at Belmarsh Prison ahead of tomorrow’s US extradition hearing

  • Assange, 48, will face the US government at Woolwich Crown Court on Monday 
  • They want to try him on spying charges with maximum prison term of 175 years
  • Varoufakis visited Belmarsh prison with Assange’s father John Shipton today 
  • ‘What we have is an assault on journalism,’ the former finance minister said 

Former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis today visited Julian Assange at Belmarsh prison ahead of the WIkileaks founder’s US extradition hearing.

Assange, 48, will tomorrow face off with the US government at Woolwich Crown Court, just a stone’s throw from the notorious southeast London jail dubbed ‘the British Guantanamo Bay.’

American officials want Assange hauled across the Atlantic to be tried on espionage charges, which carry a maximum of 175 years in prison, for publishing classified military intelligence.

Varoufakis said outside Belmarsh: ‘What we have is an assault on journalism … The only charge against Julian, hiding behind the nonsense of espionage, is a charge of journalism.’

The Greek economist joined Assange’s father John Shipton at a support rally for the prisoner on Sunday afternoon. Shipton has been vociferous in condemnation of his son’s treatment, claiming sending him to the US would be a ‘death sentence.’

Julian Assange’s father John Shipton and former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis leave Belmarsh Prison after visiting Julian Assange, in London today

Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange, 48, in a prison van, as he leaves Southwark Crown Court in London in May last year

Assange has been indicted in the US on 18 charges over the publication of classified documents.

Prosecutors say he conspired with army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to hack into a Pentagon computer and release hundreds of thousands of secret diplomatic cables and military files on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Shipton has been vociferous in condemnation of his son’s treatment, claiming sending him to the US would be a ‘death sentence’

US authorities say WikiLeaks’ activities put American lives in danger. Assange argues he was acting as a journalist entitled to First Amendment protection, and says the leaked documents exposed U.S. military wrongdoing

Among the files published by WikiLeaks was video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack by American forces in Baghdad that killed 11 people, including two Reuters journalists.

Journalism organisations and civil liberties groups including Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders say the charges against Assange set a chilling precedent for freedom of the press. 

Assange’s legal saga began in 2010, when he was arrested in London at the request of Sweden, which wanted to question him about allegations of rape and sexual assault made by two women. He refused to go to Stockholm, saying he feared extradition or illegal rendition to the United States or the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Assange’s father John Shipton and former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis arrive at Belmarsh Prison

Varoufakis speaks outside Belmarsh today surrounded by activists fighting against Assange’s extradition

In 2012, Assange sought refuge inside the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he was beyond the reach of U.K. and Swedish authorities.

For seven years Assange led an isolated and increasingly surreal existence in the tiny embassy, which occupies an apartment in an upscale block near the ritzy Harrod’s department store. Confined to the building, he occasionally emerged onto a small balcony to address supporters, and received visits from celebrity allies including Lady Gaga and ‘Baywatch’ actress Pamela Anderson.

Assange speaks on the balcony of the Embassy of Ecuador in London in May 2017

The relationship between Assange and his hosts eventually soured, and he was evicted in April 2019. British police immediately arrested him for jumping bail in 2012.

Sweden dropped the sex crimes investigations in November because so much time had elapsed, but Assange remains in London’s Belmarsh Prison as he awaits a decision on the U.S. extradition request.

Supporters say the ordeal has harmed Assange’s physical and mental health, leaving him with depression, dental problems and a serious shoulder ailment.

For his supporters around the world, Assange remains a hero. But many others are critical of the way WikiLeaks has published classified documents without redacting details that could endanger individuals. WikiLeaks has also been accused of serving as a conduit for Russian misinformation, and Assange has alienated some supporters by dallying with populist politicians including Brexit-promoter Nigel Farage.

Assange’s legal team insists the American case against him is politically motivated. His lawyers say they will present evidence that the Australian was offered a pardon by the Trump administration if he agreed to say Russia wasn’t involved in leaking Democratic National Committee emails that were published by WikiLeaks during the 2016 U.S. election campaign.

ssange speaks on the balcony of the Embassy of Ecuador in London in May 2017

Supporters of Julian Assange stages a demonstration on February 22, 2020 in London

Assange’s lawyers say the offer was made in August 2017 by then-Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, who claimed to be acting on behalf of President Donald Trump.

The White House has called the claim ‘a complete fabrication and a total lie.’ Rohrabacher acknowledges discussing the Democrat leak with Assange, but denies offering a pardon from the president.

An end to the saga could still be years away. After a week of opening arguments, the extradition case is due to break until May, when the two sides will lay out their evidence. The judge is not expected to rule until several months after that, with the losing side likely to appeal.

If the courts approve extradition, the British government will have the final say.

The case comes at delicate time for trans-Atlantic relations. The U.K. has left the European Union and is keen to strike a trade deal with the U.S.

Fashion designer Vivienne Westwood joins protesters to take part in a ‘Don’t Extradite Julian Assange’ protest rally marching from Australia House to Parliament Square in London, Britain, 22 February 2020

Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange arrives at Westminster Magistrates Court in London in April last year

But relations between Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government and the Trump administration have been strained by Britain’s decision to defy Washington and grant Chinese firm Huawei a role in building the U.K.’s telecoms infrastructure.

Anand Doobay, an extradition lawyer at the firm Boutique Law, said the Assange saga was an unusual, hard-to-predict case.

‘Very few cases raise this range of issues, where there are likely to be arguments about the actual offenses he’s accused of committing and whether they amount to a crime in both countries,’ he said. ‘There are arguments about his treatment in terms of the fairness of his trial, the conditions he’s going to be detained in, the reasons why he is being prosecuted, his activities as a journalist.’

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