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Morning news brief

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

London's High Court begins weighing Julian Assange's fate today.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

A two-day hearing will determine whether the WikiLeaks founder will be extradited to the U.S. to face spying charges. This case goes back to the 2010 publication of hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. government documents related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

FADEL: NPR's Lauren Frayer is at our bureau in London and joins us now. Good morning, Lauren.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So bring us up to speed on Julian Assange. I mean, I have this image of him on a balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he was taking refuge for years. Where is he now?

FRAYER: He was there. Now he's in a high-security prison here in London, Belmarsh prison. And he's been there for the past five years. Before that, he was - your memory serves you correctly - in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Here's a recap. In 2010, Assange was arrested here in London at the behest of Sweden, where two women had accused him of rape and sexual assault. He jumped bail in that case, took refuge in that Ecuadorian Embassy. After seven years, the Ecuadorians evicted him, and he was arrested by the U.K. for breaching that bail. Now, the Swedish charges have since been dropped, but in the meantime, the U.S. has charged him with 17 counts of espionage and one count of computer misuse.

FADEL: Ooh, lots of twists and turns there.

FRAYER: Yeah.

FADEL: I mean, OK, so this goes back to Chelsea Manning and her leak of U.S. military files during the Iraq War, right?

FRAYER: Exactly. So Chelsea Manning was a U.S. Army intelligence analyst in Baghdad. In early 2010, she leaked hundreds of thousands of secret files to WikiLeaks, which shared them with media organizations and published them. And this was one of the biggest security breaches in the U.S. military ever. It included this now-infamous, then-classified video of a 2007 U.S. helicopter attack that killed about a dozen people in Baghdad, including two Reuters journalists.

FADEL: Yeah, of course I remember that video really well. It became an important story for the public to know. You and I were both based in Baghdad at the time.

FRAYER: Yeah.

FADEL: Chelsea Manning went to prison, and her sentence was commuted by then-President Obama. But the case against Assange still remains.

FRAYER: It does. And it actually could have implications for media like you and me. Assange's lawyers say he is a publisher. Reporters Without Borders and other press freedom groups say this case sets a dangerous precedent for journalists to be charged with espionage for work that they do that's in the public interest. Now, Assange's lawyers also say they're concerned about his health. Last week, I interviewed Assange's wife, Stella Assange. She is a lawyer whom he married in 2022 while in prison, and they have two children together. Here's what she had to say.

STELLA ASSANGE: Well, it's impossible to describe what we've been through, and Julian's life is at stake in a bogus case that criminalizes journalism.

FRAYER: She says her husband is at risk of suicide, and he is obsessed with this idea that the CIA wants to kill him, so he doesn't want to be transferred to the U.S.

FADEL: So let's talk about exactly what the U.K. court will decide today or in the next couple days.

FRAYER: Yeah, there are two U.K. judges who are deciding whether Assange can appeal an extradition order that is already been signed by the U.K. government. So the U.K. is not weighing whether Assange is a journalist. They're only weighing whether he can be extradited safely. The question of guilt or the validity of his defense will be decided at a U.S. trial if that happens. So after two days of arguments, today and tomorrow, the judges could announce their decision tomorrow night. It could take a couple of weeks. Assange's wife told me, though, that she's not optimistic, and she thinks he could actually be on a plane to the U.S. within days.

FADEL: NPR's Lauren Frayer in London. Thank you, Lauren.

FRAYER: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: More than half of Gaza's population has sought shelter in the southern region of Rafah, across the border from Egypt.

FRAYER: Israel is warning of an impending ground invasion in that area if hostages aren't freed by Hamas, and the Biden administration is warning Israel not to advance without first ensuring the more than 1 million people sheltering there have an opportunity to seek safety somewhere else.

FADEL: NPR's Aya Batrawy is following all of this and joins us now from Dubai. Good morning, Aya.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So let's start with Rafah. What's the situation there for people?

BATRAWY: Well, as you note, at least a million people have fled their homes and have sought shelter in Rafah, many of them living in makeshift tents after being pushed from their homes by Israeli ground operations in other areas like the north. And there was hope that Rafah would be a safe zone, but it's not. There is no safe place in Gaza for civilians, and people are growing desperate. The number of aid trucks entering Gaza has fluctuated dramatically in recent days from one day to the next. Some days a hundred trucks go in. On other days, just a fraction of that. And now there's growing concern about hunger, disease and hospitals collapsing. You know, already more than 29,000 people in Gaza, most of them women and children, have been killed by direct violence in this war, according to the health ministry there, a war that began October 7 when Hamas attacked Israel. And in that attack they took 240 hostages and 1,200 people were killed, according to Israeli officials.

FADEL: Yeah. And some of those hostages have been released, and some still remain. Israel has carried out airstrikes on Rafah. What do we know about their impact?

BATRAWY: Israel says Hamas battalions are active in Rafah. But civilians have also suffered there. I mean, there are so many stories of loss and trauma. And here's one from Sunday. Around two dozen people were sheltering in a home in Rafah when an airstrike hit the house. Just five people survived. Now, among those killed, Leila, in that airstrike were a newlywed couple. They'd been engaged for about a year and decided to go ahead and tie the knot on Thursday. NPR's producer in Gaza, Anas Baba, spoke to the bride's father, Abdulsalam Deeb, about his daughter, Mariam Deeb. And here's what he said.

ABDULSALAM DEEB: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: He says his daughter had only been married for two days when she and her husband were killed and that they didn't even get a chance to experience life and see the world. He says, I wish I could say goodbye to her, kiss her and hug her. Her body is still under the rubble.

FADEL: Wow. It's really hard to hear the helplessness of all these families and stories like this. Now, of course, the Biden administration continues to back Israel's war in Gaza against Hamas, providing weapons and aid to Israel's military. But the president has also cautioned Israel against rushing into a ground invasion of Rafah. What do we know, though, about Israel's plans?

BATRAWY: Well, Israel's war Cabinet has been vague about Rafah, just as they've been unclear about where this war is headed and what the future of Gaza is going to look like. Now, there has been a push by mediators to get a truce in place, preferably before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins in about three weeks. But over the weekend, a member of Israel's war Cabinet said that if hostages aren't freed by Ramadan, fighting would continue everywhere in Gaza, including in Rafah.

FADEL: Egypt has expressed real concern about the possibility that a ground invasion of Rafah would push Palestinians across the border into its territory. How's that affecting relations between Egypt and Israel?

BATRAWY: Relations are really tense. I mean, there haven't been any direct calls between Egypt's president and Israel's prime minister, but Egypt is still trying to get Hamas and Israel to agree to a cease-fire of some kind. Now, as a precaution, Egyptian security officials tell NPR Egypt is constructing a walled-off security zone that could take up to 150,000 Palestinians on its side of the border in case people do break through and breach Egypt's border. Egypt is very concerned that any displacement of Palestinians into Egypt would be permanent and that it would drag Egypt into the war.

FADEL: NPR's Aya Batrawy in Dubai. Thank you, Aya.

BATRAWY: Thank you, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: As in many states, people in Louisiana are worried about rising crime.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, and the state Legislature opened a special session this week to consider dozens of bills meant to address that. But the proposed measures also threaten to undo some of the state's recent criminal justice reforms, including a controversial proposal that would make it easier to carry out death sentences.

FADEL: WRKF's Molly Ryan covers the Louisiana state government and joins us now from Baton Rouge. Hi, Molly.

MOLLY RYAN, BYLINE: Hi.

FADEL: So we mentioned this proposed legislation that would make state executions easier. What's in that bill?

RYAN: So basically there's been a bill that's been filed that would expand the methods of execution in Louisiana to include electrocution and nitrogen gas hypoxia. Right now, only lethal injection is allowed, but it's been hard to source those drugs, and Louisiana hasn't executed anyone since 2010. There's currently around 60 people on Louisiana's death row. Here's the state's new Republican governor, Jeff Landry, opening the session yesterday and inviting family members of murder victims to come to the Capitol.

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JEFF LANDRY: Capital punishment is lawful, and we intend to fulfill a legal duty to resume it for the justice of these families.

RYAN: But there's also a lot of opposition to this bill from lawmakers. And even TV and film producers are talking about possibly boycotting the state as a filming location if this passes because they don't want to see the state resume executions.

FADEL: So, you know, some pretty significant opposition there. What other measures might come out of this special session, and are there similar concerns?

RYAN: Yeah, well, there are several bills that look to limit parole eligibility and cut back on the reduced sentences that incarcerated individuals can earn for good behavior. There's also a bill that would lower the age in Louisiana at which someone can be tried as an adult from 18 to 17, and there are several bills that would increase penalties for certain crimes, like carjacking and distributing fentanyl. So overall, the governor and lawmakers are looking to just get much tougher in terms of dealing with crime. And these items have all raised concerns from Democrats and Louisiana's Legislative Black Caucus, which said that these bills will disproportionately affect Black men. They also said that the bills are reactive and don't address the root issue of crime, so they don't think it will help anything.

FADEL: Now, Molly, Louisiana made big changes in its criminal justice system since 2016, and these bills would undo some of that work. Why go back on those policies now?

RYAN: There's a lot of angst in Louisiana about crime, like there is in a lot of the country, and crime rates in Louisiana are relatively high compared to other places in the country but have dropped in some of the state's biggest cities. And Louisiana's new GOP governor, Jeff Landry - he campaigned on a platform that would get tough on crime and promised voters on the campaign trail that he would call this session. So that's a big reason why we're here. These policies are likely to be popular with a lot of Republican voters in Louisiana. But as I mentioned before, others are worried that these bills won't address the root issues of crime like mental health and education.

FADEL: WRKF's Molly Ryan in Baton Rouge. Thank you so much, Molly.

RYAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.