WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange faces his first British court hearing since the US submitted a formal extradition request
London (AFP) - WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's full extradition hearing to face espionage charges in the United States will begin in February, an English judge ruled on Friday.
The whistleblower is accused by Washington of violating the Espionage Act after releasing classified military and diplomatic files in 2010 about US bombing campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, in a case that has upset defenders of press freedoms and human rights.
In his first appearance since being transferred to Britain's top-security Belmarsh prison in April after police sensationally dragged him out of the Ecuadoran embassy in London, Assange told the court: "175 years of my life is effectively at stake."
Speaking at Westminster Magistrates Court in London via video-link from jail, and sporting a scraggly white beard, he added: "WikiLeaks is nothing but a publisher."
The 47-year-old Australian could be sentenced to 175 years in a US prison if convicted on all charges.
The US Justice Department, which submitted the formal extradition request after Ecuador terminated Assange's seven-year asylum stay, has filed 18 counts against him.
He is currently serving a 50-week prison sentence for violating bail conditions by fleeing to the embassy in 2012 when he was wanted on accusations of sexual assault in Sweden.
England's Chief Magistrate Emma Arbuthnot said the full hearing, expected to last for five days, would start on February 25.
Assange's lawyer Jennifer Robinson called the US charges "a direct attack on free speech and a direct attack on journalism" and said her team would be "raising a large number of objections" to his extradition.
She told AFP his health had suffered "in result of his continued confinement inside the embassy and now inside the prison" and he was now being housed in a healthcare ward in Belmarsh.
"He is under a huge amount of pressure and -- under very difficult circumstances -- facing a significant, complex case of huge size and scale," Robinson said.
- 'Hostile intel service' -
WikiLeaks' initial revelations about civilian casualties and embarrassing statements made by US officials about foreign leaders were published in coordination with newspapers such as The New York Times and The Guardian.
Those stories redacted the names and personal details of US operatives and local informants whose lives could have been endangered.
But the website found the arrangement too confining and later published the entire load of unedited cables and video files -- hundreds of thousands in all -- online.
"WikiLeaks walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service," US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said two days after Assange's arrest in April.
Ben Brandon, a lawyer representing the US authorities at Friday's hearing, said the extradition request "related to one of the largest compromises of confidential information in the history of the United States".
However Mark Summers, another of Assange's lawyers, told the court there was a "multiplicity of profound issues" over his extradition.
"We say it represents an outrageous and full-frontal assault on journalistic rights," he added.
- 'Chilling effect' -
Assange entered the Ecuadoran embassy in 2012, fleeing what he claimed was a politically-motivated case against him in Sweden.
A Swedish court last week rejected a request to detain Assange on those charges -- a ruling that eases the way for Britain to hand him over to the United States.
Assange's legal team and major US newspapers argue that his prosecution could shatter free speech rights and set a dangerous precedent.
Human rights groups fear that US authorities want either to put Assange behind bars for life or sentence him to death.
"The UK must comply with the commitment already made that he would not be sent anywhere he could face torture, ill-treatment or the death penalty," Amnesty International said on Thursday.
A small group of protesters gathered outside the London court on Friday ahead of the hearing, holding banners including one with the message "Free Assange".
His case could last far beyond next February's hearing, as there are multiple opportunities for appeal.