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FILE PHOTO: Protesters hold signs demanding freedom for Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in front of the Opera Garnier in Paris, France, February 17, 2020. REUTERS/Charles Platiau/File Photo Image Credit: REUTERS

LONDON: Almost a decade after his WikiLeaks website enraged Washington by leaking secret US

documents, a London court will begin hearings on Monday to decide whether Julian Assange should be extradited to the United States.

A hero to admirers who say he has exposed abuses of power, Assange is cast by critics as a dangerous enemy of the state who has undermined Western security. He says the extradition is politically motivated by those embarrassed by his revelations.

The 48-year-old is wanted by the United States on 18 criminal counts of conspiring to hack government computers and violating an espionage law and could spend decades in prison if convicted.

Now, some 10 months after he was dragged from London’s Ecuadorean embassy where he had been holed up for seven years, Judge Vanessa Baraitser will hear arguments as to why he should or should not be sent to the United States.

Jennifer Robinson, Assange’s lawyer, says his case could lead to criminalising activities crucial to investigative journalists and his work has shed an unprecedented light on how the United States conducted its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We are talking about collateral murder, evidence of war crimes,” she said. “They are a remarkable resource for those of us seeking to hold governments to account for abuses.” WikiLeaks angered Washington by publishing hundreds of thousands of secret US diplomatic cables that laid bare critical US appraisals of world leaders, from Russian President Vladimir Putin to members of the Saudi royal family.

Assange made international headlines in 2010 when WikiLeaks published a classified US military video showing a 2007 attack by Apache helicopters in Baghdad that killed a dozen people, including two Reuters news staff.

PARDON DEAL?

The hearing at London’s Woolwich Crown Court will not decide if Assange is guilty of any wrongdoing, but whether the extradition request meets the requirements set out under a 2003 UK-US treaty, which critics say is stacked in favour of the United States.

Baraitser has agreed that the case will get under way next week before being postponed until May 18 when it will resume again for a further three weeks to allow both sides more time to gather evidence.

Assange’s lawyers have said in preliminary hearings that they would argue he was being sought for political offences and that the treaty banned extradition on these grounds.

Trump offered to pardon Assange if he said that Russia had nothing to do with WikiLeaks’ publication of Democratic Party emails in 2016, his lawyer told a London court this week. The White House dismissed the accusation.