Queen’s Counsel Edward Fitzgerald told Westminster Magistrates’ Court on Thursday that he has had great difficulty gaining access to Assange in Belmarsh prison to discuss evidence and take instructions from the Australian.

The 48-year-old is wanted in the US for allegedly conspiring with army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to expose military secrets. 

“We simply can’t get in as we require to see Mr Assange and take instructions … we need time to deal with that,” Fitzgerald said.

“We need to deal with [the] points raised in the US Attorney General’s statement. The reality is we are not ready to call the main body of our evidence,” the senior lawyer added.

Assange appeared in court via video link, saluting his supporters with a raised fist during the proceedings.

Lawyers representing the United States also made applications seeking more time to prepare for the hearings and Judge Vanessa Baraitser agreed that the extradition hearing will be split in two. 

“He will remain in custody in the cells until you have indicated to this court that you have concluded such matters as you were able to manage,” the judge said.

The journalist’s extradition hearing will now be heard during one week in February and three weeks in May and June. The first part will take place at Woolwich Crown Court and it will cover arguments that the extradition is politically motivated and an abuse of process.

Assange has been in custody since he was dramatically removed from the Ecuadorian embassy in London in April 2019. He was initially jailed for the minor offense of skipping bail after going into hiding in the embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden over sex offense allegations made against him in 2010. The WikiLeaks chief always denied the allegations and Swedish authorities dropped them last November.

Belmarsh is a Category A prison, the highest level in the UK penal system. The notorious jail is intended for “highly dangerous” convicts and those likely to attempt escape. UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer sent a letter to the UK government in December asking it to end the detention of Assange. Melzer warned that his health may soon reach a “critical” stage, including the risk of death.

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