Julian Assange is being targeted by US ‘to protect President Trump’s image’, Old Bailey extradition hearing told

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is facing a politically-driven prosecution designed to protect Donald Trump’s personal image, the Old Bailey has heard.

Assange, 49, is facing 18 criminal charges in the US including claims of espionage and allegedly helping to hack classified files relating to the Afghan and Iraq wars.

The charges relate to alleged conduct in 2010 and 2011 but he was not indicted until 2018, during the administration of President Trump.

Giving evidence on Monday, veteran lawyer Eric Lewis told the Old Bailey he believes Assange is being pursued due to Mr Trump’s “vitriol towards leakers” and a determination to go after the President’s enemies.

“I conclude, on the basis of overwhelming evidence of the modus operandi of the current US President and senior officials in his administration, as well as statements made and actions taken with respect to Mr Assange, that this is a politically-motivated prosecution”, Mr Lewis wrote in statements to the court.

“This Administration’s decision to prosecute Mr Assange is entirely in keeping with its numerous decisions to implement policy on the basis of President Trump’s concerns with his own image and protecting it, through the use of the power of prosecution and imprisonment to further his agenda.

“His strategy makes for good politics, but it does not comport with the rule of law.”

Mr Lewis, a qualified lawyer called as an expert by Assange, said Mr Trump’s tenure in the White House has been “plagued by leaks”, with one particularly damaging one about alleged Russian hacking helping to get him elected.

Wikileaks published the hacked emails “to the undoubted benefit of Trump” during his campaign against Hillary Clinton, and Mr Lewis said the US President has since sought to distance himself from the organisation.

“Wikileaks and Mr Assange poses a threat to the legitimacy of Trump’s campaign that he is desperate to squash by diverting attention and imprisoning Mr Assange”, he said.

“Wikileaks is a vulnerability for Trump because of the evidentiary links between his campaign and Wikileaks.”

He said the Trump’s administration leaked continually from the start, with many of the disclosures portraying the President as a “clueless child”.

“By February 16, 2017, furious about embarrassing leaks, Trump had asked the Department of Justice to investigate leakers.”

Mr Trump reportedly said: “We’re gonna find the leakers. We’re going to find the leakers. They’re going to pay a big price for leaking.”

Mr Lewis said: “There is no real question that President Trump associated Assange and Wikileaks with other ‘leakers’ in his mind as a result of their campaign for press freedom and support of whistleblowing.”

He argued President Obama’s decision to commute the sentence of Chelsea Manning – Assange’s alleged co-conspirator – provoked “tremendous anger” in the Trump administration, causing a renewed focus on the case against the Wikileaks founder.

He said Attorney General William Barr has “carried out Trump’s personal agenda” while in office, including firing officials not towing the line.

“The Attorney General has shown that he will abandon the rule of law and override the judgment of line prosecutors to help President Trump and his friends”, he said, adding: “President Trump not only feels strongly about helping his friends, he feels even more strongly about hurting his enemies.”

The court was told Assange could face 175 years in prison if convicted of all the charges he faces, and is likely to be held in high-security conditions if extradited to the US.

The hearing will continue on Tuesday.