LONDON — WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on Friday faces his first British court hearing since the US submitted a formal extradition request on espionage charges that have upset defenders of press freedoms and human rights.
The 47-year-old Australian is currently serving a 50-week prison sentence for violating bail conditions in 2012 when he was wanted on accusations of sexual assault in Sweden.
The hacker was sensationally dragged out shouting from the Ecuadoran embassy in London by British police in April after Quito terminated his seven-year asylum stay.
Washington says Assange violated the Espionage Act by releasing a vast trove of classified military and diplomatic files in 2010 about US bombing campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The initial revelations about civilian casualties and embarrassing statements made by US officials about foreign leaders were published in coordination with newspapers such as The New York Times and The Guardian.
Those stories carefully redacted the names and personal details of US operatives and local informants whose lives could have been imperilled by their identities' release.
But WikiLeaks eventually found the arrangement too confining and published the entire load of unedited cables and video files -- hundreds of thousands in all -- on its website.
None of the 18 charges against Assange relate to his site's publication of emails that alleged Russian agents stole from the Democratic Party during Donald Trump's triumphant presidential election campaign.
"WikiLeaks walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service," US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said two days after Assange's arrest.
"It is time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is -– a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia," he said.
Assange could be sentenced to 175 years in jail if convicted on all charges.
Assange entered the embassy in 2012, fleeing what he claimed was a politically-motivated case against him in Sweden designed to discredit his work.
A Swedish court last week rejected a request to detain Assange on those charges -- a ruling that eases the way for Britain to hand him over to the United States.
Assange's legal team and major US newspapers argue that his prosecution could shatter free speech rights and set a dangerous precedent that keeps reporters from holding governments to account.
The editorial board of The New York Times wrote in May that Assange's indictment "could have a chilling effect on American journalism as it has been practised for generations".
"The new charges focus on receiving and publishing classified material from a government source. That is something journalists do all the time," The New York Times said.
The Wall Street Journal -- a traditionally conservative supporter of the Republican Party -- said US authorities had a legitimate case.
But it added that the "danger, in the Assange case, is that it becomes a precedent for governments on the right or left to prosecute journalists they don't like for reporting secrets".
It urged Congress to limit the scope of the Espionage Act so that it could specifically target "bad actors" such as Assange.
Humans rights groups fear that US authorities ultimately want to either put away Assange behind bars for life or sentence him to death.
"The UK must comply with the commitment already made that he would not be sent anywhere he could face torture, ill-treatment or the death penalty," Amnesty International said on Thursday.
And WikiLeaks lawyer Christophe Marchand accused US authorities of seeking "revenge".
"He's part of a dark legal experiment on the freedom of press," Marchand said on Tuesday.
Assange himself might speak briefly by video link but is not expected to appear in person at Friday's largely procedural hearing.
The case is likely to last months as there are multiple opportunities for appeal. — AFP