WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will find out Monday whether he can be extradited from the U.K. to the U.S. to face espionage charges over the publication of secret American military documents.
District Judge Vanessa Baraitser is due to deliver her decision at London’s Old Bailey courthouse at 10 a.m. Monday. If she grants the request, then Britain’s home secretary, Priti Patel, would make the final decision.
Whichever side loses is expected to appeal, which could lead to years more legal wrangling.
However, there’s a possibility that outside forces may come into play that could instantly end the decade-long saga.
Stella Moris, Assange’s partner and the mother of his two sons, has appealed to U.S. President Donald Trump via Twitter to grant a pardon to Assange before he leaves office on Jan. 20.
And even if Trump doesn’t, there’s speculation that his successor, Joe Biden, may take a more lenient approach to Assange’s extradition process.
U.S. prosecutors indicted the 49-year-old Assange on 17 espionage charges and one charge of computer misuse that carry a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison.
Lawyers acting on behalf of the U.S. government said in their closing arguments after the four-week hearing in the fall that Assange’s defense team had raised issues that were neither relevant nor admissible.
“Consistently, the defense asks this court to make findings, or act upon the submission, that the United States of America is guilty of torture, war crimes, murder, breaches of diplomatic and international law and that the United States of America is ‘a lawless state’,” they said. “These submissions are not only non-justiciable in these proceedings but should never have been made.”
Assange’s defense team argued that he is entitled to First Amendment protections for the publication of leaked documents that exposed U.S. military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan and that the U.S. extradition request was politically motivated.
In their written closing arguments, Assange’s legal team accused the U.S. of an “extraordinary, unprecedented and politicized” prosecution that constitutes “a flagrant denial of his right to freedom of expression and poses a fundamental threat to the freedom of the press throughout the world.”
Defense lawyers also said Assange was suffering from wide-ranging mental health issues, including suicidal tendencies, that could be exacerbated if he is placed in inhospitable prison conditions in the U.S.
They said his mental health deteriorated while he took asylum inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for years and that he was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Assange jumped bail in 2012 when he sought asylum at the embassy, where he stayed for seven years before being evicted and arrested. He has been held at Belmarsh prison in London since April 2019.
His legal team argued that Assange would, if extradited, likely face solitary confinement that would put him at a heightened risk of suicide. They said if he was subsequently convicted, he would probably be sent to the notorious ADX Supermax prison in Colorado, which is also inhabited by Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
Lawyers for the U.S. government argued that Assange’s mental state “is patently not so severe so as to preclude extradition.”
Assange has attracted the support of high-profile figures, including the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and actress Pamela Anderson.
Daniel Ellsberg, the famous U.S. whistleblower, also came out in support, telling the hearing that they had “very comparable political opinions.”
The 89-year-old, widely credited for helping to bring about an end to the Vietnam War through his leaking of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, said the American public “needed urgently to know what was being done routinely in their name, and there was no other way for them to learn it than by unauthorized disclosure.”
There are clear echoes between Assange and Ellsberg, who leaked over 7,000 pages of classified documents to the press, including The New York Times and The Washington Post. Ellsberg was subsequently put on trial for 12 charges in connection with violations of the Espionage Act, which were punishable by up to 115 years in prison. The charges were dismissed in 1973 because of government misconduct against him.
Assange and his legal team will be hoping that developments in the U.S. bring an end to his ordeal if the judge grants the U.S. extradition request.
Britain on Friday became the latest country to abolish the so-called “tampon tax,” eliminating sales taxes on women’s sanitary products.
The move was widely praised by women’s rights advocates as well as proponents of the country’s departure from the European Union.
Treasury chief Rishi Sunak had committed to ending the widely unpopular tax on tampons and sanitary pads in his budget in March but the change could only take effect Friday after Britain had finally left the economic orbit of the European Union.
Under EU law, nations cannot reduce the rate of value-added tax on menstrual products below 5% as they are deemed to be luxury items and not essentials. Ireland is the only EU country that does not charge a levy on sanitary products as its zero tax rate was in place before the EU set its floor.
“Sanitary products are essential, so it’s right that we do not charge VAT,” said Sunak. “We have already rolled out free sanitary products in schools, colleges and hospitals and this commitment takes us another step closer to making them available and affordable for all women.”
Britain officially left the bloc’s vast single market for people, goods and services at 11 p.m. London time on Thursday, giving it greater scope to set its own laws. A new U.K.-EU trade deal will bring new restrictions and red tape, but for British Brexit supporters, it means reclaiming national independence from the EU and its rules. They pointed to the abolition of the tampon tax as an early positive change from Brexit.
Britain’s treasury has previously estimated the move will save the average woman nearly 40 pounds ($55) over her lifetime.
“It’s been a long road to reach this point, but at last, the sexist tax that saw sanitary products classed as nonessential, luxury items can be consigned to the history books,” said Felicia Willow, chief of the Fawcett Society, a women’s rights charity.
Many other countries have also eliminated the tampon tax, including Australia, Canada and India. In the United States, several states including New York and Florida have also nixed the tax.
Between the specter of Brexit, the coronavirus pandemic and a new leadership team facing a budget battle, the European Union looked set to remember 2020 as an “annus horribilis.”
Instead, a last-minute trade deal with the United Kingdom coupled with the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in the final days of the year produced a sense of success for the 27-nation bloc and brought glimmers of hope to the EU’s 450 million residents.
After months of chaotic negotiations, the EU also will head into 2021 with both a long-term budget and a coronavirus recovery fund worth 1.83 trillion euros ($2.3 trillion) that could help the EU’s member nations bounce back from Europe’s most brutal economic crisis since World War II.
“The European Union managed to do what was necessary,” Fabian Zuleeg, chief executive of the European Policy Centre, an independent think tank, said. “In the end, the European Union is resilient because it delivers benefits to its member, that the members will not want to give up.”
Ursula von der Leyen, a veteran member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Cabinet, pledged to put the fight against climate change at the top of her agenda when she took over as president of the EU’s powerful executive arm on Dec. 1, 2019. But the pandemic quickly relegated environmental concerns to the background.
EU leaders agreed this year on a more ambitious target for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, yet immediate public health needs and the economic fallout of the virus crisis eclipsed the ambitious Green Deal that von der Leyen envisioned to make Europe the world’s first carbon-neutral continent by 2050 .
Faced with a more urgent crisis, Brussels showed adaptability.
After several member states closed their borders in response to the virus, temporarily threatening the sacrosanct principle of free movement of people and goods within Europe’s visa-free Schengen Area, the EU secured the creation of priority corridors to allow cross-border movement of essential supplies. In an unprecedented move, the bloc also relaxed its stringent state aid rules so national governments could help businesses on the verge of collapse.
The true silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic was certainly the emergence of a common approach to health, which was until this year purely of member states’ competence.
When the virus first struck Europe hard in March, a critical shortage of personal protective equipment for health care workers laid bare the weaknesses of the EU’s supply chains. Ten months and more than 350,000 virus-related deaths later, the member states’ cooperation on health-related issues has never been closer.
Under the European Commission’s helm, the 27 countries joined forces to resolve medicine and mask shortage, and to secure vaccine deals that allowed all member states to kickstart vaccination programs around the same time last week.
European countries also forged new ground in agreeing for the first time to borrow together while mutualizing part of the debt to fund the coronavirus recovery program. It was not an easy task. A majority of member states first had to overcome the resistance of a group of so-called “frugal” countries led by the Netherlands, then faced resistance from Poland and Hungary over a provision of the overall EU budget that linked payouts to respect for democratic standards.
The stalemate was broken under Germany’s time in the rotating presidency of the European Council, which defines the EU’s priorities. Merkel, who has been chancellor since 2005 and is set to leave office next year, proved she remains as a major EU power broker while in the twilight of her political career.
“Her role has been crucial when it comes to the (budget), to the recovery package,” Zuleeg told The Associated Press. “It was crucial that Germany took the lead together with France and push it over the line.”
Of course, Merkel could not fix all the EU’s problems is the space of six months: the bloc’s relationship with Turkey is at a nadir, and the EU has yet to tackle illegal immigration and asylum, Europe’ most pressing and politically divisive issue before the pandemic.
But while sealing the U.K. trade deal made for a frantic December, the EU found more ways to usher in 2021 with a blush of health on its cheeks. It launched an ambitious reform of its rules for internet businesses, a move that will expose big tech companies to hefty fines for violations, and signed a major investment deal with China this week.
Britain’s long and sometimes acrimonious divorce from the European Union ended Thursday with an economic split that leaves the EU smaller and the U.K. freer but more isolated in a turbulent world.
Britain left the European bloc’s vast single market for people, goods and services at 11 p.m. London time, midnight in Brussels, completing the biggest single economic change the country has experienced since World War II. A different U.K.-EU trade deal will bring new restrictions and red tape, but for British Brexit supporters, it means reclaiming national independence from the EU and its web of rules.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose support for Brexit helped push the country out of the EU, called it “an amazing moment for this country.”
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson signs the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement at 10 Downing Street, London Wednesday Dec. 30, 2020. The U.K. left the EU almost a year ago, but remained within the bloc’s economic embrace during a transition period that ends at midnight Brussels time —- 11 p.m. in London — on Thursday. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel signed the agreement during a brief ceremony in Brussels on Wednesday morning then the documents were flown by Royal Air Force plane to London for Johnson to add his signature. (Leon Neal/Pool via AP)
“We have our freedom in our hands, and it is up to us to make the most of it,” he said in a New Year’s video message.
The break comes 11 months after a political Brexit that left the two sides in the limbo of a “transition period” — like a separated couple still living together, wrangling and wondering whether they can remain friends. Now the U.K. has finally moved out.
It was a day some had longed for and others dreaded since Britain voted in a 2016 referendum to leave the EU, but it turned out to be something of an anticlimax. U.K. lockdown measures to curb the coronavirus curtailed mass gatherings to celebrate or mourn the moment, though a handful of Brexit supporters defied the restrictions to raise a toast outside Parliament as the Big Ben bell sounded 11 times on the hour.
British citizens, who live in Belgium, hold candles and Union flags during an anti Brexit vigil in front of the UK mission building at the European quarter in Brussels, Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020. On Thursday, the United Kingdom is finally moving out. At 11pm London time, midnight at EU headquarters in Brussels, Britain will economically and practically leave the 27-nation bloc, 11 months after its formal political departure. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
Read Also: UK and EU reach post-Brexit trade agreement
A free trade agreement sealed on Christmas Eve after months of tense negotiations ensures that Britain and the 27-nation EU can continue to buy and sell goods without tariffs or quotas. That should help protect the 660 billion pounds ($894 billion) in annual trade between the two sides, and the hundreds of thousands of jobs that rely on it.
But companies face sheaves of new costs and paperwork, including customs declarations and border checks. Traders are struggling to digest the new rules imposed by the 1,200-page trade deal.
The English Channel port of Dover and the Eurotunnel passenger and freight route braced for delays as the new measures were introduced, though the pandemic and a holiday weekend meant cross-Channel traffic was light, with only a trickle of trucks arriving at French border posts in Calais as 2020 ended. The vital supply route was snarled for days after France closed its border to U.K. truckers for 48 hours last week in response to a fast-spreading variant of the virus identified in England.
The British government insisted that “the border systems and infrastructure we need are in place, and we are ready for the U.K.’s new start.”
A man holds an English flag in Parliament Square, in London, Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020. Eleven months after Britain's formal departure from the EU, Brexit becomes a fact of daily life on Friday, once a transition period ends and the U.K. fully leaves the world's most powerful trading bloc. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)
But freight companies were holding their breath. Youngs Transportation in the U.K. suspended services to the EU until Jan. 11 “to let things settle.”
“We figure it gives the country a week or so to get used to all of these new systems in and out, and we can have a look and hopefully resolve any issues in advance of actually sending our trucks,” said the company’s director, Rob Hollyman.
The services sector, which makes up 80% of Britain’s economy, does not even know what the rules will be for business with the EU in 2021. Many of the details have yet to be hammered out. Months and years of further discussion and argument over everything from fair competition to fish quotas lie ahead as Britain and the EU settle into their new relationship as friends, neighbors and rivals.
Goods lorries enter the ferry terminal at Port of Dover, in southern England, the main ferry link with France and other northern Europe ports, late Thursday Dec. 31, 2020. The last ferries are crossing the border into northern Europe before the Brexit transition period concludes, and Britain begins its new relationship with the trading bloc from Jan. 1. (Gareth Fuller/PA via AP)
Hundreds of millions of individuals in Britain and the bloc also face changes to their daily lives. Britons and EU citizens have lost the automatic right to live and work in the other’s territory. From now on, they will have to follow immigration rules and obtain work visas. Tourists face new headaches including from travel insurance and pet paperwork.
For some in Britain, including the prime minister, it’s a moment of pride and a chance for the U.K. to set new diplomatic and economic priorities. Johnson said the U.K. was now “free to do trade deals around the world, and free to turbocharge our ambition to be a science superpower.”
Conservative lawmaker Bill Cash, who has campaigned for Brexit for decades, said it was a “victory for democracy and sovereignty.”
That’s not a view widely shared across the Channel. In the French president’s traditional New Year’s address, Emmanuel Macron expressed regret.
“The United Kingdom remains our neighbor but also our friend and ally,” he said. “This choice of leaving Europe, this Brexit, was the child of European malaise and lots of lies and false promises.”
The divorce could also have major constitutional repercussions for the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland, which shares a border with EU member Ireland, remains more closely tied to the bloc’s economy under the divorce terms, a status that could pull it away from the rest of the U.K.
A man rides a bike in front of the British embassy on New Year's Eve in Berlin, Germany, Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020. Eleven months after Britain's formal departure from the EU, Brexit becomes a fact of daily life on Friday, Jan. 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
In Scotland, which voted strongly in 2016 to remain, Brexit has bolstered support for separation from the U.K. The country’s pro-independence First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted: “Scotland will be back soon, Europe. Keep the light on.”
Many in Britain felt apprehension about a leap into the unknown that is taking place during a pandemic that has upended life around the world.
“I feel very sad that we’re leaving,” said Jen Pearcy-Edwards, a filmmaker in London. “I think that COVID has overshadowed everything that is going on. But I think the other thing that has happened is that people feel a bigger sense of community, and I think that makes it even sadder that we’re breaking up our community a bit, by leaving our neighbours in Europe.
“I’m hopeful that we find other ways to rebuild ties,” she said.
Britain recorded more than 50,000 coronavirus cases overnight for the first time since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in the world, according to official figures released Tuesday.
Another 53,135 people in Britain have tested positive for COVID-19, marking a new record daily increase in coronavirus cases in the country, according to the official figures.
The total number of coronavirus cases in the country now stands at 2,382,865, the data showed.
Another 414 have died within 28 days of a positive test, bringing the total number of coronavirus-related deaths in Britain to 71,567.
Meanwhile, Portugal registered another 3,336 COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, bringing the national tally to 400,002.
According to the Directorate-General for Health (DGS), the country's death toll rose by 74 within one day to 6,751.
The DGS epidemiological bulletin also showed 2,930 COVID-19 patients were hospitalised, 37 fewer than on Monday. Of them, 486 were in intensive care units, down by 17.
Sweden introduces entry ban
Nearly 3,000 people have been turned away at the Swedish-Danish border in the first week after Sweden introduced an entry ban from neighboring Denmark, Swedish Television reported on Tuesday.
Most were stopped while trying to cross the Oresund bridge by car from Denmark to southern Sweden and long queues have formed on the bridge, where so far over 200 people have been told to return to Denmark per day.
Normally, border police reject around 100 people per week, according to the report.
"We urge travelers not to try to enter Sweden unless they absolutely have to. The border police are under a lot of strain and anyone trying to cross risks waiting in a long queue only to be told they have to turn back," Anders Wiberg, head of the police unit in southern Sweden in charge of handling the entry ban, told the Swedish Television.
Denmark extends lockdown
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen announced on Tuesday the extension of the current nationwide lockdown until Jan 17.
"Let me say it very clearly," she told journalists. "The situation with infection rates and hospitalisations is more serious now than it was in the spring."
Shopping centers, schools, restaurants and bars are currently closed across most of Denmark until Jan 3, but with the country on Monday registering a record 30 deaths due to coronavirus, some or all of these restrictions are likely to be extended.
All public employees who do not deliver critical services are required to work from home and the prime minister called on all private companies to also move to remote work.