The day before a court hearing planned for Thursday on the U.S. Justice Department's request to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the United States, a British judge sentenced him to 50 weeks in prison for skipping bail seven years ago, when he first took refuge at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.
"What is at stake there? It could be a question of life and death for Mr. Assange."
—Kristinn Hrafnsson, WikiLeaks
The sentencing on Wednesday came nearly three weeks after the Ecuadorian government revoked the journalist and publisher's asylum status, and allowed British authorities to arrest Assange and forcibly drag him out of the embassy—moves that were immediately criticized by rights advocates, reporters, political leaders, and whistleblowers across the globe.
WikiLeaks, in a series of tweets Wednesday, called the sentence "shocking" and "vindictive."
Assange's defence provided ample evidence at today's sentencing hearing regarding mitigation, none of which was taken into account by the judge. We urge everyone to read the submission and come to their own conclusions as to the fairness of the sentence.https://t.co/RbDFeGi3Og
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) May 1, 2019
Assange, who is being held in London's Belmarsh Prison, submitted a letter of apology to the Southwark Crown Court that was read aloud by his attorney Mark Summers.
I apologize unreservedly to those who consider that I have disrespected them by the way I have pursued my case. This is not what I wanted or intended.
I found myself struggling with terrifying circumstances for which neither I nor those from whom I sought advice could work out any remedy. I did what I thought at the time was the best and perhaps the only thing that could be done—which I hoped might lead to a legal resolution being reached between Ecuador and Sweden that would protect me from the worst of my fears.
I regret the course that this took; the difficulties were instead compounded and impacted upon very many others. While the difficulties I now face may have become even greater, nevertheless it is right for me to say this now.
Despite Assange's apology, Judge Deborah Taylor handed down nearly the maximum sentence allowed.
"Whilst you may have had fears as to what may happen to you, nonetheless you had a choice," Taylor reportedly told the 47-year-old Australian. "It is difficult to envisage a more serious example of this offense."
As his sentence was read, "Assange stood impassively with his hands clasped," reported The Associated Press. "His supporters in the public gallery at Southwark Crown Court cheered for him as he left and chanted 'Shame on you' at the judge as Assange was led away. He raised his fist in a show of defiance."
Taylor's decision Wednesday preceded what WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson described as "the start of the big and most important fight."
Speaking to the reporters about the upcoming extradition hearing, Hrafnsson said: "What is at stake there? It could be a question of life and death for Mr. Assange."
The Justice Department's extradition request officially comes "in connection with a federal charge of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion," related to documents that Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning shared with WikiLeaks.
However, critics charge it is an "obvious" ploy to punish Assange for publishing "embarrassing information about the activities of the American military and security services," including "evidence of atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan," and continue to warn that his extradition would set a dangerous precedent for journalists globally.
"Any person who believes in a democratic society and fights for freedom of the press should support Assange, wherever they are in the world.
The Parliament of Catalonia denounces Assange's detention and joins repeated UN calls for his immediate release."https://t.co/EGCg9LPmsU
— Defend Assange Campaign (@DefendAssange) May 1, 2019
DiEM25 and Demokratie in Europa are planning a "We are all Julian Assange!" demonstration for Thursday at the Brandenburger Gate in Berlin—near the U.S. and U.K. embassies. Assange is a member of DiEM25's advisory panel.
"Whatever the outcome of the court hearing," DiEM25 said in a statement, "the very fact that Julian is being kept in solitary confinement at the 'British Guantanamo,' Belmarsh Prison, is enough for us to gather at the Brandenburger Gate to protest against the inhuman conditions he is facing now and to loudly say, 'Stop the extradition of Julian Assange!'"