Sources revealed by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange “disappeared” after he put them at risk of torture and murder, Woolwich Crown court in London has heard.
Opening his extradition hearing on Monday, James Lewis QC, said the 48-year-old is guilty of “ordinary criminality” by stealing from and hacking into US government computers.
He told District Judge Vanessa Baraitser that Assange, 48, is not charged with publishing “embarrassing” information the US would rather was not disclosed.
The lawyer said the dissemination of specific classified unredacted documents put dissidents in Afghanistan and Iraq at “risk of serious harm, torture or even death”.
He told Woolwich Crown Court, London, which is sitting as a magistrates’ court, the US identified hundreds of “at risk and potentially at risk people” around the world and made efforts to warn them.
Mr Lewis said: “The US is aware of sources, whose redacted names and other identifying information was contained in classified documents published by WikiLeaks, who subsequently disappeared, although the US can’t prove at this point that their disappearance was the result of being outed by WikiLeaks.”
Australian Assange is wanted in the United States to face 18 charges in the Eastern District of Virginia over “one of the largest compromises of classified information” in the country’s history.
Mr Lewis said most of the charges relate to “straightforward criminal activity”, which he described as a “conspiracy to steal from and hack into” the department of defence computer system along with former US army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning.
“These are ordinary criminal charges and any person, journalist or source who hacks or attempts to gain unauthorised access to a secure system or aids and abets others to do so is guilty of computer misuse,” Mr Lewis said.
“Reporting or journalism is not an excuse for criminal activities or a licence to break ordinary criminal laws.
“This is true in the UK as it is in the USA and indeed in any civilised country in the world.”
The lawyer said three charges relate to the dissemination of specific documents which put sources at risk.
“By disseminating the materials in an unredacted form, he likely put people – human rights activists, journalists, advocates, religious leaders, dissidents and their families at risk of serious harm, torture or even death,” he said.
“What Mr Assange seeks to defend by free speech is not the publication of the classified materials, but he seeks to defend the publication of sources – the names of people who put themselves at risk to assist the US and its allies,” Mr Lewis continued.
“He is not charged with the disclosure of embarrassing or awkward information that the government would rather not be disclosed. The disclosure charges are solely were there was a risk of harm.”
Mr Lewis also described Assange’s lawyers claims he would face up to 175 years in jail if found guilty of the charges as “hyperbole”, although he did admit any sentence would be a matter for the US court.
Wearing a grey suit, and grey sweater over a white shirt, Assange spoke only to confirm his name and date of birth in front of supporters in a full public gallery, including his father John Shipton.
Scores of protesters, some of whom had pitched tents nearby, were so loud they could be heard inside the courtroom.
The extradition hearing will be adjourned at the end of this week of legal argument and continue with three weeks of evidence scheduled to begin on May 18.
The decision, which is expected months later, is likely to be appealed against by the losing side, whatever the outcome.
Assange has been held on remand in Belmarsh prison since last September after serving a 50-week jail sentence for breaching his bail conditions while he was in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
He entered the building in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden over sex offence allegations, which he has always denied and were subsequently dropped.