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Ai Weiwei holds protest against Julian Assange extradition

Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei staged a silent protest Monday against the possible extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, outside the former journalist's trial at the Old Bailey in London.

Assange is fighting an attempt by American prosecutors to extradite him to the U.S. to stand trial on spying charges.

US prosecutors have indicted the 49-year-old Australian on 18 espionage and computer misuse charges over WikiLeaks' publication of secret U.S. military documents a decade ago. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison.

Assange's lawyers say the prosecution is a politically motivated abuse of power that will stifle media freedom and put journalists at risk around the world.

Speaking outside the courthouse, Weiwei claimed that the treatment of Assange bore similarities to the way Chinese authorities suppress dissidents.

"First they try to smash him, to tar his name, to come out with all kinds of strange accusations. The result, they think, is just putting him away - to punish him."

The artist said he believed that the attempt to extradite Assange was intended as a signal "for all the journalists who want to give exposure to governments' wrongdoings."

American authorities allege that Assange conspired with U.S. army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to hack into a Pentagon computer and release hundreds of thousands of secret diplomatic cables and military files on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In a new indictment announced in June, the U.S. Justice Department expanded its case, accusing Assange of recruiting hackers at conferences in Europe and Asia, recruiting a teenager to hack into the computer of a former WikiLeaks associate and conspiring with members of hacking groups known as LulzSec and Anonymous.

U.S. prosecutors say the evidence underscores Assange's efforts to procure and release classified information.

Assange's lawyers argue that he is a journalist entitled to First Amendment protection and say the leaked documents exposed U.S. military wrongdoing.

The case is due to run until early October. The judge is expected to take weeks or even months to consider her verdict, with the losing side likely to appeal.

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