A British judge on Monday delayed WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s full extradition hearing, which had been due to begin next month, after the coronavirus pandemic prevented him meeting his lawyers.
At a preliminary hearing at Westminster Magistrates’ Court in London, Vanessa Baraitser agreed to vacate the May 18 start date for the three-week extradition trial, and warned the next time slot was not available until November.
A new timetable for the case will be agreed at another administrative hearing on May 4.
Assange is currently in the high security Belmarsh prison in south London as he fights an extradition request by the United States to stand trial there on espionage charges.
His lawyers said Monday they had been unable to take instruction from the whistleblower since the coronavirus outbreak prompted a nationwide lockdown in Britain more than a month ago.
“There have always been great difficulties in getting access to Mr Assange,” lawyer Edward Fitzgerald told the court.
“But with the coronavirus outbreak, the preparation of this case cannot be possible.”
Assange faces charges under the US Espionage Act for the 2010 release by WikiLeaks of a trove of secret files detailing aspects of US military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.
A ruling against Assange could see him jailed for 175 years.
He took refuge in the Ecuadoran embassy in London in 2012 after skipping bail to avoid separate legal proceedings in Sweden, but was dragged out by British police last year.
Assange last month failed in his bid for bail after he argued that he was at risk of catching coronavirus in Belmarsh.
The British government has been planning to allow some prisoners temporary release, amid fears COVID-19 could sweep through jails.
But Baraitser rejected the request on March 25, saying there were “no grounds” for his release.
It also emerged earlier this month that the one-time computer hacker fathered two children with one of his lawyers while in Ecuador’s embassy.
The 48-year-old Australian is the dad of two boys, aged two and one, with lawyer Stella Morris, to whom he is engaged, she confirmed following a newspaper report.