WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange loses bid to delay extradition hearings

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange appears in a U.K. court to fight extradition to the United States on espionage charges, and loses a bid to delay proceedings so that his legal team would have more time to prepare his case.

Assange faces 18 counts in the U.S., including spying charges

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is seen in a courtroom sketch during a case management hearing in his U.S. extradition case at Westminster Magistrates Court in London on Monday. (Julia Quenzler/Reuters)

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange appeared in a U.K. court Monday to fight extradition to the United States on espionage charges, and lost a bid to delay proceedings so that his legal team would have more time to prepare his case.

Assange defiantly raised a fist to supporters who jammed the public gallery in Westminster Magistrates Court in London for a rare view of their hero.

He appears to have lost weight but looked healthy, although he spoke very softly and at times seemed despondent and confused. Assange mumbled and stuttered for several seconds as he gave his name and date of birth at the start of a preliminary hearing in the case.

Assange and his legal team failed to convince District Judge Vanessa Baraitser that a delay in the already slow-moving case was justified. The full extradition is still set for a five-day hearing in late February, with brief interim hearings in November and December.

He hadn't been seen in public for several months and his supporters had raised concerns about his well-being. He wore a blue sweater and a blue sports suit for the hearing, and had his silvery-grey hair slicked back.

After the judge turned down his bid for a three-month delay, she asked Assange at the end of the hearing if he knew what was happening. He replied "not exactly," complained about the conditions in jail, and said he was unable to "think properly."

He said the case is not "equitable" because the U.S. government has "unlimited resources" while he doesn't have easy access to his lawyers or to documents needed to prepare his battle against extradition while he is confined to Belmarsh Prison on the outskirts of London.

"They have all the advantages," Assange said.

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

Assange, shown on May 1, puts his fist up as he is taken from court in London. Assange's lawyer argued more time was needed to prepare his client's case. (Matt Dunham/The Associated Press)

Lawyer Mark Summers, representing Assange, told the judge more time was needed to prepare Assange's defence against "unprecedented" use of espionage charges against a journalist. Summers said the case has many facets and will require a "mammoth" amount of planning and preparation.

"Our case will be that this is a political attempt to signal to journalists the consequences of publishing information," Summers said.

He also accused the U.S. of illegally spying on Assange while he was inside the Ecuadorian Embassy seeking refuge, and taking other illegal actions against the WikiLeaks founder.

"The American state has been actively engaged in intruding into privileged discussions between Mr. Assange and his lawyers in the embassy, also unlawful copying of their telephones and computers [and] hooded men breaking into offices," he said.

He did not provide evidence of these charges, which likely would be part of Assange's defence against extradition when the full hearing is held next year.

Summers asked for a three-month delay to the full hearing but was rebuffed after lawyer James Lewis, representing the U.S., said the U.S. opposed any delay to the proceeding.

The judge said the full hearing will be heard at Belmarsh Court, which is adjacent to the prison where Assange is being held. She said this would be easier for Assange to attend and contains more room for the media.

Assange's lawyers argue the five days won't be enough for the entire case to be heard and are expected to ask for more time at a later date.

Classified information published

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

Admirers have hailed Assange as a hero for exposing what they describe as abuse of power by modern states and for championing free speech.

The court's public gallery was jammed with these supporters on Monday, including former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, and outside the courthouse others carried placards calling for Assange to be released.

Demonstrators hold banners during a protest outside the Westminster Magistrates Court, where a hearing in Assange's extradition case is being held. (Hannah McKay/Reuters)

But his detractors have painted him as a dangerous figure complicit in Russian efforts to undermine the West and U.S. security, and dispute that he is a journalist.

WikiLeaks angered Washington by publishing hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. diplomatic cables that laid bare critical U.S. appraisals of world leaders, from Russian President Vladimir Putin to members of the Saudi royal family.

In 2012, he took refuge in Ecuador's London embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden where he was accused of sex crimes which he denied, saying he believed he would ultimately be sent on to the United Sates.

He was dragged from the embassy in April after seven years and given a 50-week jail term for skipping bail. That sentence was completed but he remains in prison while his extradition case continues.

 Assange claims he is a journalist entitled to First Amendment protection.

A number of media freedom groups have said the use of espionage charges against Assange represents a threat to all journalists.

With files from Reuters