(CN) — Citing a recent news report alleging the CIA discussed killing or kidnapping WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the jailed cyberactivist’s lawyers argued on Thursday that extraditing him to the United States to face espionage charges would mean delivering him to a country determined to cause him harm.
In January, District Court Judge Vanessa Baraitser in London blocked his extradition out of concern that doing so could lead him to end up such harsh prison conditions that he might be at risk of committing suicide. The judge, though, denied him bail and kept him locked up in a high-security prison in London pending appeals.
The United States appealed Baraitser's ruling and its lawyer argued on Wednesday that the U.S. has provided diplomatic assurances that guarantee Assange will be treated humanely if he is handed over to the U.S.
On Thursday, Assange's lawyers decried those assurances as worthless on the second and last day of an appellate hearing before Britain's High Court of Justice in London. The High Court’s ruling can be appealed to the United Kingdom's Supreme Court.
The defense team relied heavily on a recent Yahoo News report that cited numerous CIA agents who said the intelligence service discussed plans to kill or kidnap Assange from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he had taken refuge in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden on sexual assault charges that were later dropped. At the time, Assange was also fearful of being handed over to U.S. authorities, who had begun a criminal investigation into his activities.
The revelations were the latest to shed light on the CIA's efforts to target Assange, who oversaw the publication of massive troves of leaked classified documents, the most sensational of which related to alleged war crimes by the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan and deeply damaging revelations about U.S. international conduct in diplomatic cables.
The Yahoo News report added to revelations that the CIA allegedly paid a Spanish company providing security at the Ecuador Embassy to spy on Assange, according to Spanish investigators and news reports.
On Thursday, Assange's lawyers pointed to the CIA's actions as evidence that the WikiLeaks founder faces serious harm if he is extradited.
We “have grounds for fear as to what will be done to him,” said lawyer Edward Fitzgerald. He said those fears are based on the “revelations about the surveillance in the embassy and the revelations in Yahoo about the plots to kill him and plots to kidnap him.”
There are “grave concerns about may happen to him,” he said.
Mark Summers, another Assange lawyer, said new assurances by the U.S. that Assange will be treated humanely while in U.S. custody cannot be trusted. He said the U.S. has left open the possibility of placing Assange in solitary confinement that could drive him to kill himself. Assange's mental health deteriorated significantly during his confinement at the Ecuadorian Embassy and since he was arrested by London police and placed in the high-security Belmarsh Prison, according to doctors and his supporters.
“Even if assurances were offered that actually did rule out isolation and oppression, there are genuine questions to be resolved about their trustworthiness in this unusual and exceptional case,” Summers said. "This is a case where there is credible evidence of U.S. governmental plans developed at some length to do serious harm to Mr. Assange.”
Extradition, he said, would likely lead to Assange "serving years, or potentially the rest of his life, in extreme isolation, and in circumstances which the medical experts have concluded could potentially lead to his death.”
James Lewis, a lawyer with Britain's Crown Prosecution Service and acting on behalf of the U.S., countered that the U.S. promises are to be trusted.
“A diplomatic assurance is solemn matter which is given at the highest level and has to be considered extremely carefully,” he said. “These are not dished out like Smarties and they are only dished out in the light of strong, usually binding” terms to facilitate extradition.
He said there is no reason to assume that Assange's mental health will suffer by being sent to the U.S. The U.S. lawyers have accused Assange of exaggerating his poor mental state and suggested he is a “malingerer.”
Two senior judges at the High Court – Lord Chief Justice Ian Burnett and Lord Justice Timothy Holroyde – are presiding over the hearings. They will rule at a later date.
There are indications that the High Court judges may be inclined to overturn the lower court ruling and grant the extradition. In a previous hearing, they allowed the U.S. to expand the grounds for its appeal.
At one point on Thursday, one of the judges seemed unimpressed that the CIA was targeting Assange.
“I wouldn't have thought it a controversial proposition that the CIA and the American intelligence community have been intensely interested” in Assange, the judge said.
The U.S. accuses Assange of acting like a dangerous foreign spy seeking to damage the country. WikiLeaks has come under fire for releasing information that has potentially put U.S. military personnel at danger. Assange also faces accusations that he has ties to Russia.
The Trump administration was particularly eager to go after Assange and it filed charges against him. He faces 18 counts of soliciting, gathering and publishing classified documents as well as computer hacking related to the release of hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables and military reports by Chelsea Manning. If convicted, he could face up to 175 years in jail.
But Assange is also a hero to many free-speech advocates, human rights activists and journalists and his extradition has become a major showdown over human rights, free speech and the protection of journalism.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.