Former employees of a security firm accused of spying on Julian Assange at Ecuador’s embassy in the UK will be allowed to give evidence to his extradition trial anonymously after claiming they would be at risk of kidnapping or poisoning.
Anonymity was granted to two former employees of UC Global after a hearing at the Old Bailey in London was told they feared that its director and owner, David Morales, or others connected to him in the US, could seek to harm them.
Judge Vanessa Baraitser said she would permit their identities to remain anonymous out of respect for a Spanish court that had done the same as part of a case in which they are involved.
Hearing a submission for anonymity from the WikiLeaks founder’s legal team on Tuesday, she asked if the witnesses required protection “from the director of UC Global, or from the American state, or from whom do you think?”
Mark Summers QC responded that they required protection mainly from Morales, but also from “those associated with him”. He said that Morales, who had been detained in Spain and subsequently bailed, had military training and that a firearm with the serial numbers removed had been found at one of his addresses.
James Lewis QC, acting for the US government, did not contest the submission for anonymity but said that checks would be carried out on the witnesses, whose evidence would be read into the record. He added that the US case was likely to be that their evidence was “wholly irrelevant”.
In allegations first reported by El Pais, the Spanish defence and private security company provided security for the Ecuadorian embassy, where Assange lived for seven years until April 2019. According to a complaint lodged by Assange in Spain, the company handed over audio and video of meetings he held with his lawyers and supporters inside the embassy to the CIA, breaching privacy laws and legal privilege.
Earlier in Tuesday’s hearing, a lawyer for Abu Hamza, the radical Muslim cleric serving a life sentence in the US for terrorism offences, told the court that Assange would almost certainly end up in the extreme conditions of a notorious “supermax” jail if sent to the US.
The lawyer, Lindsay Lewis, accused US authorities of going back on assurances that she said had been given to courts in the UK and Europe before Hamza was extradited from Britain in 2012.
Assange is fighting extradition to the US on charges relating to leaks of classified documents allegedly exposing US war crimes and abuse. He could face a prison sentence of up to 175 years if convicted on all charges and be moved to the “supermax” administrative maximum facility near Florence, Colorado.
It is currently holding Abu Hamza, an Egyptian-born former imam at the Finsbury Park mosque in north London, who was born Mustafa Kamel Mustafa.
The 62-year-old had suffered serious psychological consequences from enforced isolation in the US, Lewis told the Old Bailey. The US lawyer represented Hamza during his New York terrorism trial and has been called by Assange’s defence team.
“I would note he was almost never out of his cell except for legal visits,” she said, adding that calls and communications to his family were also sporadic.
There was no reason to believe that the conditions US authorities could impose on Assange “would be any less arbitrary, oppressive or difficult to challenge”, Lewis said.
Her evidence follows a week of testimony by medical experts who referred to Assange’s history of depression and what was said to be a “high risk” of him taking his life if extradited.
“I think he would be unlikely to get anywhere near the care or accommodation he has had in the UK,” said Lewis, giving evidence via videolink.
Another witness called by the Assange legal team, a former warden at the Metropolitan Correctional Centre in New York, said there would have to be a severe change in Assange’s medical status for him to get out of the prison in Florence.
Cross-examining, Clair Dobbin, for the US government, said it was only a “possibility” that Assange would be subject to what are known as Sams (special administrative measures).