LONDON — The United States government began laying out its extradition case against Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, in court on Monday by arguing that he had put lives at risk and was no better than an “ordinary” criminal.
“Reporting or journalism is not an excuse for criminal activities or a license to break ordinary criminal laws,” James Lewis, a lawyer representing the U.S. government, told the court.
Mr. Assange is wanted by the American authorities on charges of conspiring to hack into a Pentagon computer network, and he could face as many as 175 years in prison if found guilty on all charges.
His lawyers will begin presenting their defense later in the week.
Mr. Assange’s appearance in Woolwich Crown Court was the latest twist in a saga that stretches back to 2010, when he began publishing secret American military and diplomatic documents that were provided by the former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, who was convicted at a court-martial in 2013 of leaking the documents.
From the outset, Mr. Assange’s case has raised profound First Amendment issues.
That in part explains why Mr. Assange was not prosecuted under the Espionage Act for publishing U.S. government secrets. Instead, prosecutors have charged him with conspiring to commit unlawful computer intrusion for what they say were his efforts to help Ms. Manning break into a classified military network under another user’s identity. The subsequent disclosures included a classified military video showing a 2007 attack by Apache helicopters in Baghdad that killed a dozen people, including two employees of the Reuters news agency.
Mr. Lewis, the lawyer for the U.S. government, told the court on Monday that the charges against Mr. Assange were not connected to the publication of materials demonstrating wrongdoing by American military forces or “embarrassing” officials, but for “publishing specific classified documents that contained unredacted names of innocent people who risked their safety and freedom to aid the United States and its allies.”
“These are ordinary criminal charges and any person, journalist or source who hacks or attempts to gain unauthorized access to a secure system or aids and abets others to do so is guilty of computer misuse,” he said.
To his defenders, dozens of whom gathered outside the courtroom in a show of support, Mr. Assange, 48, is the victim of a politically driven prosecution.
Mr. Assange has largely receded from public view after he was dragged out of the Ecuadorean Embassy in London in April. He had found refuge in the embassy for seven years to avoid extradition to Sweden over rape allegations. He denied those charges, and the case has since been dropped.
His strange existence at the embassy, where he lived with his cat in a small corner room, helped him become perhaps the world’s most famous self-proclaimed political refugee.
He continued to run his internet group, hold news conferences and wave to admirers from an embassy balcony. But with the departure in 2017 of Ecuador’s leftist president, Rafael Correa, who had granted him asylum, Mr. Assange’s days in the embassy were numbered.
By the time the Metropolitan Police in London dragged him from the embassy in April, he looked haggard and disheveled.
For the last year, he has been held at Belmarsh Prison, which is next to the courtroom where his extradition case will be heard over the next month.
Mr. Assange’s lawyers, in pretrial motions, suggested that they would cast the prosecution as politically motivated and argue that their client was simply acting as a journalist and publisher.
Mark Summers, one of Mr. Assange’s lawyers, has said that prosecuting his client could have a chilling effect on press freedom.
“This is part of an avowed war on whistle-blowers to include investigative journalists and publishers,” Mr. Summers told the court last year.
Mr. Assange’s legal team has also sought to tie their client to President Trump, telling the court that former Representative Dana Rohrabacher of California, an ally of the president, had offered a pardon to Mr. Assange on Mr. Trump’s behalf if the WikiLeaks founder were to say that Russia had nothing to do with the 2016 hacking of the Democratic National Committee.
The White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, has called the suggestion of a pardon offer “a complete fabrication and a total lie.”