Thursday, 1 Oct 2020

At Assange’s Extradition Hearing, Troubled Tech Takes Center Stage

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The afternoon testimony of Daniel Ellsberg, the former military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, was also smooth for the most part.

But Ms. Vincent noted that the issues had already affected the proceedings in a number of ways, making the situation “insufficient for observation and to ensure open justice.”

From the start, press freedom advocates and rights groups have denounced the charges against Mr. Assange, saying that they raise profound First Amendment issues because the publication of the classified material is indistinguishable from the practices of traditional news organizations.

Mr. Assange, 49, was arrested in London last year after being expelled from the Ecuadorean Embassy, where he had spent seven years behind a veil of diplomatic immunity.

The United States has indicted Mr. Assange on 18 counts of violating the Espionage Act for soliciting, obtaining and sometimes publishing material that the government deemed classified, in connection with the release to WikiLeaks of archives of military and diplomatic documents by Chelsea Manning, a former Army intelligence analyst.

Mr. Assange is not facing charges over the later publication by WikiLeaks of Democratic emails stolen by Russian hackers in the 2016 U.S. election.

In addition to the technical problems, rights groups complained that a number of international observers had been denied access to the courtroom in an official capacity and that their access to the remote livestream had been revoked.

Some, like Ms. Vincent, have been allowed to sit in an overflow courtroom open to the public, where the witnesses are shown on video. But she said she worried that the technical issues were just the tip of the iceberg.

“What we are seeing now, this week, you can’t really divorce the tech issue from the other restrictions on observers,” she said.

During the first phase of the hearing in February, Amnesty International and other observers had been granted permission to attend the hearing as official monitors.

This time around, that has changed, according to Julia Hall, Amnesty International’s expert in counterterrorism, criminal justice and human rights in Europe. Her organization requested access to the courtroom, she said, but was initially allowed access only to a livestream to view the hearing remotely. But last week, that was abruptly revoked when the hearing began.

“This situation that we are in right now is quite disturbing, and it’s unique,” Ms. Hall said. “This court has failed dramatically to recognize a key component of open justice, and that is how international trial monitors monitor a hearing for its compliance with domestic law and international law.”

Barring further delays, the hearing is expected to be finished by early October.

When asked about the issues during Mr. Assange’s hearing, a spokesman for Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, which administers the court, offered only a general statement.

“We work hard to ensure that any technical issues are identified and repaired as soon as possible,” the spokesman said. The Ministry of Justice, when asked for comment, directed requests back to the courts service.

In June, the ministry announced plans for an additional 142 million pounds, about $183 million, to help speed up technological improvements and modernize courtrooms.

Several requests for comment from lawyers for the prosecution and from Mr. Assange’s defense lawyers on the impact of the technology issues have gone unanswered. But rights groups assert that, because of the implications for press freedom, the issues must be resolved immediately.

“This case is of tremendous international public interest as it has ramifications in not just the U.S. and U.K. but internationally,” Ms. Vincent said.

Charlie Savage contributed reporting from Washington.

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