Exiled Chinese political dissident and contemporary artist Ai Weiwei staged a silent protest outside London’s Old Bailey Court this week in support of detained WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as the final stage of his extradition hearing gets underway.
In an interview with VICE News on Thursday, Ai Weiwei explained his very public opposition to the case, arguing that it would harm press freedom and an individual’s “right to know, obtain and expose information related to public safety.”
“Extraditing Julian Assange will put him at the mercy of a closed trial in the United States and will hurt journalism, especially investigative journalism, in the time to come,” Ai said.
Citing a recent New York Times investigative report that revealed paltry tax payments by U.S. President Donald Trump, he raised the importance of checks and balances in society.
“Governments are winning in every way and have become more powerful than ever in controlling personal data. This has been proven by authoritarian states like China,” Ai Weiwei said.
“Protecting those who devote themselves to defending the right of the public to be informed is crucial. If we allow governments to put hands on individuals like Julian then we have given up the most precious rights in a civil society.”
Assange’s high-profile trial, which has lasted for weeks, is nearing conclusion after the U.S. accused him of violating more than a dozen criminal offences in connection to his work with the whistle-blowing site.
Prosecutors say he helped former U.S. army intelligence officer and fellow whistleblower Chelsea Manning hack sensitive computer networks and endangered the lives of military personnel by disseminating classified information on the WikiLeaks website in 2010 and 2011, most related to American operations abroad.
Assange has been behind bars since last April, serving a 50-week sentence for skipping bail in 2012 when he took refuge in London’s Ecuadorian embassy to avoid being extradited to Sweden over sexual assault charges that were later dropped.
He also fathered two sons, according to his fiancé Stella Morris, a lawyer who helped him with his case.
If sent back to the U.S. and convicted, Assange could face a prison term of up to 175 years.
In May, he was deemed so unwell that he was unable to appear at a court hearing via video link from prison and was moved to the prison’s hospital wing after dramatic weight loss, according to WikiLeaks.
His legal team said that his mental and physical health have declined dramatically since his detention and claimed that the U.S. extradition effort was “politically motivated” and a “war on whistleblowers”.
Appearing in court, the 48-year-old Australian internet activist said he was “in fear for his life”, struggling to say his name and date of birth and admitted to a full courtroom that he didn’t understand what was going on.
The court also heard from two witnesses who said that Assange would face intolerable conditions if extradited, the Associated Press reported.
Over the years, Ai visited Assange twice. He told VICE News that Assange had established a platform to instruct democracy, not to destroy it.
“It exposed a government’s wrongdoings, many unthinkable and sometimes even criminal,” Ai said. “Protecting Julian Assange is not only protecting an individual facing misconduct and unfair judicial treatment, but rather protecting the very idea of the public having the right to know information and journalists having the duty to uncover that information.”