A lawyer for Julian Assange failed Tuesday to convince a British judge to postpone the jailed WikiLeaks publisher’s extradition trial due to the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic.
Edward Fitzgerald, a defense attorney for Mr. Assange, had asked that the proceedings be pushed back to September because of the pandemic instead of resuming as planned on May 18.
But his application for an adjournment was denied by District Judge Vanessa Baraitser, who suggested it was too soon to tell whether U.K. courts will be operational next month.
Mr. Assange, a 48-year-old Australian, is wanted in the U.S. on charges related to soliciting, receiving and publishing classified material released through the WikiLeaks website.
He was arrested in London last April at the request of U.S. authorities, and he has been jailed for nearly a year now at a U.K prison pending the outcome of his extradition trial.
Extradition proceedings for Mr. Assange began in late February and lasted four days before being put on a hold ahead of another round of hearings scheduled to last several weeks.
The novel coronavirus has spread widely around the globe in subsequent weeks, killing tens of thousands of people and changing the way of life for countless others.
Indeed, news outlets on hand for Tuesday’s hearing at Westminster Magistrates’ Court in London reported that Mr. Fitzgerald argued the pandemic had made it impossible to stay in touch with Mr. Assange prior to the next round of proceedings and accordingly asked for an adjournment.
“Really the basic point is we have not been able to have any reasonable communication with him at present,” Mr. Fitzgerald said, The Daily Mail reported. “We can’t have access to him physically in prison, we can’t have access by video-link and sending correspondence to him means very, very long delays and sometimes doesn’t get to him.”
Mr. Fitzgerald also objected to resuming proceedings next month because he said that Mr. Assange would have to attend the hearing by video-link, effectively requiring him to move about the prison and use shared facilities that put him at risk of contracting COVID-19, the infectious respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus, the Australian Associated Press reported.
Judge Baraitser denied his application for an adjournment by reasoning that it would be premature to postpone the hearings at this point.
Noting that Mr. Assange’s trial is currently set to resume May 18, the judge said “the global picture is likely to be very different then,” The Daily Mail reported.
“This is an unpredictable situation, but I cannot assume courts won’t be operating normally then,” said the judge, according to the outlet. “With this in mind, it is my current intention to hear as much of this case as possible in May.
The judge also indicated that she was unopposed to the hearings resuming next month with witnesses testifying by video, notwithstanding Mr. Fitzgerald’s argument that Mr. Assange would not be able to hear and see what was happening in court.
“The use of video-link for witnesses is routinely made, and it would be entirely appropriate for these witnesses to use the video-link to give their evidence,” said the judge, The Daily Mail reported.
Mr. Assange is accused of violating the U.S. Espionage Act and a federal anti-hacking law, and he faces a maximum sentence of 170 years in prison if extradited and convicted.
Lawyers for Mr. Assange previously argued that he suffers from health conditions that place him at a higher risk from the coronavirus and should be released from Belmarsh Prison in London while awaiting trial, but that request was denied late last month.
More recently, British media outlets reported Tuesday that multiple cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed inside Belmarsh and that one inmate has died from the disease.