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Assange's health seemed to be 'deteriorating rapidly' before arrest, says friend

Updated 5:27 PM ET, Wed May 1, 2019

(CNN) - An "uphill battle" won't stop Julian Assange from fighting his extradition to the United States. That's according to his friend and self-proclaimed computer hacker Lauri Love.

British police on April 11 dragged the WikiLeaks founder out of the Ecuadorian Embassy where he had been living since 2012. In an interview with CNN, Love said when he visited Assange a few weeks before, he appeared to be "deteriorating rapidly" and knew he would soon be arrested.

"He puts on a very brave face, but it was clear he was very worried," said Love, who lives with his parents in rural England. "This was weighing heavily on his mind and soul."

Love knows a thing or two about waging a successful extradition fight. In 2013, American officials accused him of hacking multiple government agencies, including the US Army, NASA, and US Missile Defense. He was charged in three federal indictments and faced up to 99 years in an American prison.

"It was very scary and very worrying, anxiety causing, depressing, almost mind-boggling," said Love.

At his extradition hearing, Love argued he would not survive the US prison system and should be tried in the UK. His extradition was initially approved, but last February, a British judge reversed that decision, ruling he should instead stand trial in the UK. Prosecutors in the UK have yet to file new charges against Love.

Love is urging the public to "overcome a carefully cultivated distaste for Julian as a character" and to look at the spirit of the US indictment against the Australian whistleblower, which he calls "vindictive retribution" for the WikiLeaks disclosures.

"It is a pretext to send the message that if you are going to report on things there is a line and you do not go beyond that line," Love said. "They are making an example of him."

A defense against extradition

On Wednesday Assange was sentenced to just under a year in a UK prison after he was found guilty of violating his bail conditions when he entered Ecuador's London embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden in 2012.

Assange faces his first extradition hearing on Thursday. Prosecutors in the US have charged Assange with helping former Army intelligence specialist Chelsea Manning break into US Defense Department computers.

"The Americans don't need to prove their case to the UK extradition court," said Nick Vamos, the former head of extradition at the Crown Prosecution Service where he was directly responsible for Assange's case. "They just need to prove that there is sufficient evidence that if the offense occurred here, somebody could be arrested for it."

Vamos said Assange's lawyers are likely to make three arguments. The first is that the extradition request is politically motivated, the second being retribution for Assange's WikiLeaks disclosures. Vamos said a third argument Assange's team could make is that he won't be able to receive a fair trial in the US, and that extradition could violate his human rights due to inhumane American prison conditions.

"It's going to be one of those where he throws the kitchen sink at it, I think that's clear."

In an interview last month, Assange's lawyer Jennifer Robinson told CNN that her team would "of course be raising the politicization of the case."

Robinson told reporters after Assange's bail violation sentencing on Wednesday: "We've been saying since 2010 that this threat [of extradition] is real. The focus of our energies will now be on fighting that extradition request and that fight starts tomorrow."

In the weeks since his arrest, Assange has been held at HMP Belmarsh in Thamesmead, southeast London.

Vamos said Assange's case will be a tough one to win.

"A whiff of political motivation in the background is not going to be enough to stop somebody's extradition if the courts also think this is a proper offense which has been properly charged," Vamos said.

"What you need to prove is that the entire proceedings are corrupted and tainted by politics and that the person who is being prosecuted solely or primarily on the basis of their political beliefs, their political opinions, or political activities."

A troubled history of UK-US extraditions

Love is not the only alleged hacker that US officials have struggled to extradite. In 2012, Theresa May, in her role as Home Secretary, controversially blocked the extradition of a British unemployed computer system administrator accused of breaking into US military computers.

The defendant, Gary McKinnon, is autistic and admitted to committing the crime, saying he was trying to find out if the US was covering up the existence of UFOs. McKinnon threatened to commit suicide if he was extradited, and May overruled a court order in order to keep him in Britain.

After the McKinnon case, UK extradition law was changed to limit the amount of influence politicians could yield in the process.

Extradition decisions now primarily rest with judges. According to Love, public sentiment played a role in his extradition being blocked. "The media actually helped vastly to bring about this mutual sense of understanding of people that were following my case that this is an abuse of the extradition procedure process and this is something we do not want to happen," Love said.

"I think it allowed the judges enough space to consider the law carefully enough to do the right thing."

Don't expect Assange to be given the same leeway, said Vamos.

"Really when it comes down to it, the UK doesn't have any skin in the game with Assange," Vamos said.

"He's not a UK citizen, he's not a UK resident, so there's no great national interest on a political or policy or a legal basis to say we need to protect Julian Assange," Vamos explained.

"There is a high-level argument about journalism and freedom of speech, and that's a great argument to have but it's not ultimately, I think, going to prevent his extradition because the UK doesn't have that personal interest in protecting him."


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