For the prosecution, James Lewis QC stated that the government strongly opposed any delay being given for the defense to prepare, and strongly opposed any separate consideration of the question of whether the charge was a political offense excluded by the extradition treaty. Baraitser took her cue from Lewis and stated categorically that the date for the extradition hearing, Feb. 25, could not be changed. She was open to changes in dates for submission of evidence and responses before this, and called a 10-minute recess for the prosecution and defense to agree these steps.
US Runs the Show
What happened next was very instructive. There were five representatives of the U.S. government present (initially three, and two more arrived in the course of the hearing), seated at desks behind the lawyers in court. The prosecution lawyers immediately went into huddle with the U.S. representatives, then went outside the courtroom with them, to decide how to respond on the dates.
After the recess the defense team stated they could not, in their professional opinion, adequately prepare if the hearing date were kept to February, but within Baraitser's instruction to do so they nevertheless outlined a proposed timetable on delivery of evidence. In responding to this, Lewis's junior counsel scurried to the back of the court to consult the Americans again while Lewis actually told the judge he was "taking instructions from those behind." It is important to note that as he said this, it was not the U.K. Attorney-General's office who were being consulted but the U.S. embassy. Lewis received his American instructions and agreed that the defense might have two months to prepare their evidence (they had said they needed an absolute minimum of three) but the February hearing date may not be moved. Baraitser gave a ruling agreeing everything Lewis had said.
At this stage it was unclear why we were sitting through this farce. The U.S. government was dictating its instructions to Lewis, who was relaying those instructions to Baraitser, who was ruling them as her legal decision. The charade might as well have been cut and the U.S. government simply sat on the bench to control the whole process. Nobody could sit there and believe they were in any part of a genuine legal process or that Baraitser was giving a moment's consideration to the arguments of the defense. Her facial expressions on the few occasions she looked at the defense ranged from contempt through boredom to sarcasm. When she looked at Lewis she was attentive, open and warm.
The extradition is plainly being rushed through in accordance with a Washington dictated timetable. Apart from a desire to pre-empt the Spanish court providing evidence on CIA activity in sabotaging the defense, what makes the February date so important to the USA? I would welcome any thoughts.
Baraitser dismissed the defense's request for a separate prior hearing to consider whether the extradition treaty applied at all, without bothering to give any reason why (possibly she had not properly memorized what Lewis had been instructing her to agree with). Yet this is the UK/US Extradition Treaty 2007. See Article 4.
On the face of it, what Assange is accused of is the very definition of a political offense; if this is not, then what is? It is not covered by any of the exceptions from that listed. There is every reason to consider whether this charge is excluded by the extradition treaty, and to do so before the long and very costly process of considering all the evidence should the treaty apply. But Baraitser simply dismissed the argument out of hand.
Just in case anybody was left in any doubt as to what was happening here, Lewis then stood up and suggested that the defense should not be allowed to waste the court's time with a lot of arguments. All arguments for the substantive hearing should be given in writing in advance and a "guillotine should be applied" (his exact words) to arguments and witnesses in court, perhaps of five hours for the defense. The defense had suggested they would need more than the scheduled five days to present their case. Lewis countered that the entire hearing should be over in two days. Baraitser said this was not procedurally the correct moment to agree to this, but she will consider it once she had received the evidence bundles.
(SPOILER: Baraitser is going to do as Lewis instructs and cut the substantive hearing short).
Baraitser then capped it all by saying the February hearing will be held, not at the comparatively open and accessible Westminster Magistrates Court where we were, but at Belmarsh Magistrates Court, the grim high security facility used for preliminary legal processing of terrorists, attached to the maximum security prison where Assange is being held. There are only six seats for the public in even the largest court at Belmarsh, and the object is plainly to evade public scrutiny and make sure that Baraitser is not exposed in public again to a genuine account of her proceedings, like this one you are reading. I will probably be unable to get in to the substantive hearing at Belmarsh.
Plainly the authorities were disconcerted by the hundreds of good people who had turned up to support Julian. They hope that far fewer will get to the much less accessible Belmarsh. I am fairly certain (and recall I had a long career as a diplomat) that the two extra American government officials who arrived halfway through proceedings were armed security personnel, brought in because of alarm at the number of protesters around a hearing in which were present senior US officials. The move to Belmarsh may be an American initiative.
Assange's defense team objected strenuously to the move to Belmarsh, in particular on the grounds that there are no conference rooms available there to consult their client and they have very inadequate access to him in the jail. Baraitser dismissed their objection offhand and with a very definite smirk.
Finally, Baraitser turned to Julian and ordered him to stand, and asked him if he had understood the proceedings. He replied in the negative, said that he could not think, and gave every appearance of disorientation. Then he seemed to find an inner strength, drew himself up a little, and said:
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