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Assange created a ‘grave and immediate risk’, says US government, as it seeks extradition

Julian Assange created a “grave and immediate risk” that innocent people would suffer serious harm, the US government has argued as it seeks his extradition.

The WikiLeaks founder, who is not present due to health reasons, has applied for permission to appeal his extradition in the High Court.

On the second and final day of the application, the US government argued his extradition would be lawful, because Assange should not be treated as a journalist.

Clair Dobbin KC, for the US government, said Assange had encouraged former US soldier Chelsea Manning to steal classified documents and unlawfully dispose them to WikiLeaks.

The number of documents provided to Assange included approximately 90,000 Afghanistan war-related significant activity reports, 400,000 Iraq war-related significant activity reports, 800 Guantanamo Bay detainee assessment briefs, and 250,000 US State Department cables.

Dobbin said the release of undredacted documents by WikiLeaks – containing the names of local Afghans and Iraqis, journalists, religious leaders, human rights advocates, and political dissidents from repressive regimes – had “created a grave and immediate risk that innocent people would suffer serious physical harm or arbitrary detention”.

“There were really profound consequences, beyond the real human cost and to the broader ability of the US to gather evidence from human sources as well,” she said.

One Ethiopian journalist was arrested following the leak, Dobbin said. Others had “disappeared” since.

“Although it cannot be proven that their disappearance was a result of being outed,” she added.

Dobbin emphasised the “usefulness” of the information released to groups like the Taliban, who had apparently studied the material, and Osama Bin Laden, who had requested that the US Department of Defense material released by WikiLeaks be gathered.

She said it was right, therefore, that district judge Vanessa Baraitser at Westminster Magistrates Court had concluded in 2021 that what Assange did could not “fall within the ambit of responsible journalism”.

As an example, she alleged that on 8 March 2010, Assange agreed to assist Manning in cracking a password hash that would have allowed her to access a classified Department of Defense account, using a username that did not belong to her, so she could obscure her identity and continue to steal documents.

Dobbin emphasised the “gravamen” of that allegation. “That obviously goes far beyond the acts of a journalist who is merely gathering information,” she said.

The US government argues that Assange can be extradited under section 81(a) of the Extradition Act 2003.

Assange’s team argued yesterday that a political prosecution was barred under the act. But the US said that for extradition to be barred, there must be “bad faith” on the part of the party seeking extradition.

Dobbin warned against the implications of Assange’s argument. She said it would mean US prosecutor Gordon Kromberg is “effectively lying to the UK courts in his affidavits when he asserts that there is an objective basis” for prosecution.

“The starting point must be, as it always is in these cases, the fundamental assumption of good faith on the part of those states with which the UK has long-standing extradition relations. The US is one of the most long-standing partners of the UK,” said Dobbin.

The court heard it was possible that Australian citizen Assange, 52, could receive a prison sentence of up to 30 or 40 years if he was extradited to the US. He has been in prison in the UK for five years.

Mark Summers KC, responding on behalf of Assange, said: “We do not suggest Mr Kromberg is a lying individual or that he is personally not carrying out his prosecutorial duties in good faith. The prosecution and extradition here is a decision taken way above his head.

“You cannot focus on the sheep and ignore the shepherd,” Summers argued. “What happened here was state retaliation ordered from the very top.”

Responding to the argument that the US government had acted at all times in good faith, he said: “We do not understand how that argument can be advanced with a straight face.”

Summers said the unredacted documents had been leaked after a member of the team published a book which featured a key to an encrypted network. He said the harm caused by that leak was “unintended, unforeseen and unwanted” by Assange.

The decision of Dame Victoria Sharp and Mr Justice Johnson was reserved.

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