February 20, 2024 - 7:30pm

Royal Courts of Justice, central London

At Temple tube station this morning, a group of four Jeremy Corbyn lookalikes were lost.

“Oh I was marching here just last week,” one of them said, holding up a smashed phone. Stuck to the back was a Palestinian flag — a full-time protestor, it seemed. On the short walk to the Royal Courts of Justice, more of the usual suspects appeared: scruffy 60-somethings in once-practical Oxfam attire with uniform woolly hats. They were here for Julian Assange.

By 8.30am, a hundred or so protestors were gathered outside the building, along with dozens of cameras. Craig Murray, former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, made a speech saying that the crowd’s size indicated that “the pressure is growing.”

Today marked the WikiLeaks founder’s final appeal against the High Court’s ruling to extradite him to the United States. There, Assange may face a sentence of 175 years, meaning he would very possibly die in prison. As Murray noted, after years of campaigning, “we have now reached a stage where most people understand what’s at stake here”.

When Jeremy Corbyn took to the stage, a mighty cheer went up. The former Labour leader took aim at Joe Biden, the British media and Belmarsh prison, where Assange is currently incarcerated. “If [Biden] believes in a pluralistic democracy, as he says he does, then let Julian go. Let Julian tell the world the truth about the horrors and inequality that exist on this planet,” Corbyn said. “Whatever the Courts’ decision, we are not going away.” In a tone that managed to mix weariness with triumph, he added: “For the British establishment, the whole question of Julian Assange is just a little bit embarrassing.”

Assange’s supporters seemed resigned outside the court, as if they already knew their cause was futile. Their hero’s absence and his wife Stella’s repeated warnings that Julian “would die” if extradited created the eerie sense of a memorial service. When proceedings began, Assange’s barrister Edward Fitzgerald KC told the court the WikiLeaks founder was too ill to attend the hearing, even via video link from jail.

Matters weren’t helped when Corbyn made a gaffe of his own, wondering “if only Julian were alive today” at one point. He hastily corrected himself: “In reality, in front of us, alive to give reporting rather than being stuck in that horrible cell in Belmarsh, what would he be saying? What would he be saying about the bombardment of Rafah and all the destruction of life all across the Gaza Strip?”

By the time Stella Assange arrived, the crowd had grown. She said just a few words to the protestors: “Julian needs his freedom and we need the truth”. If this week’s hearing is unsuccessful, Assange could apply to the European Court of Human Rights for a Rule 39 order to stop extradition while it considers his case. His supporters will no doubt be there until the bitter end. What that end will be, and when it comes, remains less clear.

Panda La Terriere is a freelance writer and playwright.