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Assange hearing starts as celebrities join the activists in support

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Julian Assange is still receiving support from many around the world who believe in freedom of press (Screenshot via YouTube)

Many are showing support for Julian Assange during his extradition hearing and uniting in the fight against the war on journalism. Sara Chessa reports from the UK.

WHILE THE ASSANGE extradition hearing was about to resume, on Monday, the scene was dominated by Vivienne Westwood's speech and by the art installation she placed in front of the Central Criminal Court, defining Assange “a true punk”. The famous fashion designer is a long-term supporter of the WikiLeaks publisher and she was one of the famous characters that joined the protester at the Old Bailey buildings.

Among them, also the BAFTA award-winning journalist and filmmaker John Pilger, German MP Heike Hänsel and writer and activist John Rees, who run the Don’t Extradite Assange campaign. On the stage built in front of the Court entrance, they all spoke to defend the WikiLeaks founder threatened with extradition request and the risk of 175 years in gaol for revealing war crimes and disclosing secret documents of public interest.

Hundreds of activists surrounded them, replying with chants and music while the press attention was divided between the demonstration and the entrance of the Court, where the key witnesses were going to pass through.

German MP Heike Hänsel speaking before the hearing starts, with Vivienne Westwood's installation behind her (Image supplied)

However, they were not the only object of attention. After the interview with Assange’s fiancée, Stella Morris, released to the Sunday Time Magazine, journalists were extremely curious to meet her.

This would be enough to see how the attention, if not the support of the public, is growing around Assange's cause. In the last year, we have not only seen the Council of Europe and his High Commissioner on Human Rights speaking up in support of his immediate release, but a constant number of little achievements that show how civil society is slowly becoming aware of the smear campaign against Assange after the WikiLeaks disclosures. Now, we see Ms Morris telling one of the most prestigious UK magazines of the last dramatic years, with her children seeing their father Assange as just “a voice on the phone”.

While the awareness of the public showed its growth outside, the hearing started inside the Court. Assange’s lawyers were able to take instructions in person from their client on a new indictment produced by the U.S. Government. This detail shows how distant we are from a fair trial, where the defendant has the possibility to prepare his case by regularly consulting his lawyers, a fundamental right that apparently is not valid in the WikiLeaks publisher's case. In consequence of this new extradition request, Assange was formally re-arrested on Monday morning.

Mark Summers QC from his legal team said the defence only had sight of the new indictment in the last few weeks.

In other words, Assange’s lawyers were not informed by the U.S. Government nor by the Crown Prosecution Service — rather, they learned about the new charges through a press release.

John Shipton outside the Court, making the public listen to Collateral Murder video (Image supplied)

Here comes the point to highlight. After this, Summers didn’t ask to delay the case, as many UK newspapers report, but rather to restrict the hearing to the evidence in the original indictment. Easy to understand why this subtle difference — a delay would have meant more time in prison for their client. “What’s happening here is wrong, unfair, and not in the interests of justice,” he said, referring to the fact that the defence would not be in a position to make their case properly given such short notice.

“We are not saying you can never lay a new indictment, but to do it six weeks before the hearing is unfair, it is just too late,” he stated later when the prosecution opposed to his request.

When the judge finally refused to focus only on the evidence in the original indictment by saying the defence previously had the occasion to ask for more time, Mark Summers, for the defence, explained very well how difficult it could be to take a decision on the matter when a client had not even seen the new indictment and the lawyers could only communicate with him via short telephone calls.

For this reason, he asked for the case to be postponed, in order for his team to look up the new evidence from the U.S. However, the application was refused by judge Vanessa Baraitser.

When the battle was over, the Court started hearing the witnesses. It was the time of Mark Feldstein, who was asked by the defence about two reports he has written over the case.

Protesters outside the Court (Image supplied)

An investigative reporter graduated from Harvard, Feldstein told the Court he is not being paid for his evidence and explained that the leaking of classified information is “endemic” in America and the exposure of corruption and misuse of power they produce “go back to the time of George Washington”.

He told the Court leaks occur “on a daily basis” and no publisher had ever been successfully prosecuted in the United States for publishing leaked information.

The authoritative opinion closed the first day of hearing, reminding the Court that there is no historical situation when a grand jury had brought charges against a publisher.

The hearing is expected to last between three and four weeks, with the prosecution of the WikiLeaks publisher appearing more and more as a consequence of the war on journalism carried on by Trump Administration. New witnesses will try to help stop this attack today, as the investigative journalist Nicolas Hager, the Middle East correspondent for The Independent Patrick Cockburn and the Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg will be heard.

Sara Chessa is a UK-based independent journalist. You can follow Sara on Twitter @sarachessa1.

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