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In London Court, Lawyers Argue Whether Assange Should Be Deported To U.S.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Extradition proceedings for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange start today in London. The U.S. government wants to put him on trial for allegedly conspiring to hack into a Pentagon computer and release hundreds of thousands of secret files. NPR's Frank Langfitt is in London watching all of this. And, Frank, where is Julian Assange right now?

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Well, he's been in Belmarsh prison since May of last year. And today, he's in a courtroom in southeast London, arguing - basically pleading for the U.K. authorities not to send him to the States.

KING: This case has been going on 10 years now. How did it start? Remind us.

LANGFITT: Well, you're right. It started back in 2010. WikiLeaks released hundreds of thousands of secret diplomatic cables and military files. And these were focused on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. And some of them were deeply damaging to the Pentagon. There was a video of a U.S. Apache helicopter attack that killed at least 11 Iraqis, including two reporters. Now, the U.S. government said this put Americans at risk, putting this material out there. It was an enormous breach. Others, though, groups like Reporters Without Borders - they say this is a First Amendment case. And the U.S. is trying to punish Assange for exposing wrongdoing. And right now there are protesters out in front of the courthouse in London calling for Assange to be set free.

KING: Why did it take so long for this hearing to happen?

LANGFITT: Well, he skipped bail. Assange skipped bail - and we remember this - but on unrelated rape charges in Sweden. This was going back six, maybe seven years ago. Those charges have since been dropped. But when he skipped bail here, he holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy for a very long time. The Ecuadorians granted him political asylum. But he was not a great houseguest. And he stayed a very long time. And they revoked his diplomatic immunity last year. And British police hauled him out. And off he went to prison.

KING: OK. There you go. Frank, there's also been an interesting twist in all of this that involves President Trump and the 2016 election. What happened there?

LANGFITT: Well, this is another leak from WikiLeaks that made - had a big impact. If you remember back during the Democratic campaign, Hillary Clinton was running in 2016. WikiLeaks released emails from her campaign and the Democratic National Committee. The U.S. indicted 12 Russian agents for that hack. But one of Assange's attorneys says that Assange met with Dana Rohrabacher. He was then a U.S. Republican congressman. And Rohrabacher allegedly offered to arrange a pardon for Assange in 2017 if he disavowed Russia's role in all of this, which, in fact, Assange has done in the past. The idea was to try to refute evidence that Russia tried to help Trump win the White House, which, of course, has been embarrassing to the president and something that he wants to erase.

KING: And does Dana Rohrabacher admit to that? Does he say he offered Assange a pardon?

LANGFITT: Well, up to a point, Noel, he does say that he did help to offer - get a pardon for Assange. But he said he never talked to the president about it. And, of course, the White House says that, as well. They say they had nothing to do with it.

KING: OK. So in the end, how likely is it that Assange ends up in a U.S. court?

LANGFITT: It's not clear. The U.S. probably has quite a lot of evidence. And Assange is facing up to 175 years in prison. But, of course, Assange's attorneys are going to argue he can't get a fair trial in the United States.

KING: NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Thanks, Frank.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.