Londoners rally for Assange ahead of extradition hearing

 Both Julian Assange and the broader issues of press freedom will be at stake at the hearing next week. (AP pic)

LONDON: A few hundred protesters marched across central London Saturday to call on Britain to reject WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s extradition to the United States at hearings that start next week.

A London court is to meet Monday to assess Washington’s request to hand over the media freedoms activist so he can be tried for releasing classified files in 2010 about US campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The 48-year-old Australian is facing 18 counts – 17 of them under the US Espionage Act – that could see him sentenced to prison terms of up to 175 years.

Supporters of Assange’s freedom gathered outside the Australian government’s representative office and then marched through central London for a rally outside parliament.

Some chanted “journalism is not a crime” and held up banners mocking Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The UK government plays no formal role in the extradition case. Monday’s hearing is expected to last a week and then resume for a second session starting on May 18.

Any ruling is likely to be appealed by the losing side and Assange could remain locked up in a high security London prison for many more months.

“I don’t really understand why Julian is in jail here,” Assange’s father John Shipton told the crowd on London’s Parliament Square.

Others attending included Pink Floyd rock group co-founder Roger Waters and Greece’s former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis.

Fashion designer and activist Vivienne Westwood wore a neon green paper halo with the word “angel” written in black marker.

Assange was “the angel of democracy,” she explained.

The case was injected with a dose of intrigue last week when the defence claimed US President Donald Trump had promised to pardon Assange if he denied Russia leaked emails of his 2016 election rival’s campaign.

US intelligence agencies have concluded that Russian GRU military intelligence agencies hacked the servers of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in the runup to the November vote.

WikiLeaks then published the stolen emails. Assange has previously said that he received them from through his website’s anonymous file sharing system and had no idea who obtained them first.

The DNC hack plays no role in the US case against Assange and Trump denied promising a pardon.

But the court said last week that the evidence was admissible.