On April 11, 2019 WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange was arrested at the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Upon Ecuador’s invitation, British authorities entered the embassy and detained Assange, charging him with failure to surrender to the court in a previous case. Yet British authorities eventually commented that they arrested Assange on the United States’ behalf. The U.S., who unsealed an indictment against Assange the same day that he was arrested in the UK, are pursuing his extradition for his efforts to disclose classified information that the government believes would have injured the U.S. But even this potential outcome faces complications. Prior to confirming Assange’s exit from the embassy, President Moreno of Ecuador insisted that the UK refuse to extradite Assange to a country in which he could face torture or the death penalty as a form of punishment. The UK confirmed this agreement in writing. Although Assange would only face a maximum sentence of five years if convicted of the U.S. charges against him, this condition nevertheless complicates a case that already crosses multiple borders and fosters intense emotional polarization.
Filed in March 2018 but unsealed on April 11, the U.S. indictment against Assange alleges that the WikiLeaks co-founder attempted to hack into and steal classified information on the U.S. government. Specifically, the charge states that Assange sought to break a password to a classified U.S. government computer, conspiring to commit computer intrusion. Had the plan succeeded, Manning could have browsed computers with a username that did not belong to her, making it difficult for authorities to spot Manning as the source of the break-in. The indictment notes how Chelsea Manning, who was imprisoned for violating the Espionage Act, not only assisted Assange in this process, but in many before it. Manning allegedly provided Assange 250,000 State Department cables, 800 Guantanamo Bay detainee assessment briefs, and hundreds of thousands war-related significant activities reports on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. He would then post such information to WikiLeaks, making it publically available. Even though the indictment makes clear that Assange and Manning formed a password-breaking agreement, it makes no mention as to whether the plot succeeded, or if it was even carried out. Additionally, some view the narrowness of this allegation as a means to avoiding conflicts with the First Amendment’s guarantee to freedom of the press.
A controversial figure, Assange has proven elusive amongst law enforcement agents for the past decade or so. He first faced charges in 1995, when Australian authorities accused him of committing a number of hacking activities. He plead guilty and paid fines worth thousands of Australian dollars, but he did not receive jail time because he pledged never to reoffend. He founded WikiLeaks in 2006, and both he and the organization rose to prominence in 2010, when they released footage of a U.S. helicopter targeting civilians in Iraq. He published a trove of classified military documents on the U.S. conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan soon after.
In that same year, the Swedish Prosecutor’s Office issued two arrest warrants against Assange, charging him with two separate cases of rape and molestation, which he denied. The charges came two days after he applied for residency in Sweden, seeking to take advantage of its strong laws in favor of whistleblowers. Though the charges were rapidly dropped, they were picked up again months later (and included an additional charge of unlawful coercion), when Assange arrived in London. Sweden issued an international arrest warrant for Assange, leading to a year-long battle in the British courts that eventually saw the UK Supreme Court rule in favor of his extradition to Sweden. Months later, in August 2012, the Ecuadorian embassy in London granted Assange asylum, fearing for his human rights were he to be extradited to Sweden. Sweden dropped the sexual molestation and unlawful coercion charges against Assange in 2015, as well as the rape charge in 2017, yet Assange remained in the embassy. Though the UK and Ecuador attempted to negotiate his release on multiple occasions, the talks continually failed, as Assange feared that arrest by UK authorities would lead to extradition to the U.S. Nevertheless, on April 11, 2019, Ecuador revoked their protection of Assange, and invited British authorities into the embassy to arrest him.
In a video released online, President Moreno of Ecuador noted why he rescinded Assange’s claim to asylum. He criticized Assange for continuing to interfere in the internal affairs of individual states, which included publishing a wide array of documents tied to the Vatican in January 2019. He further condemned Assange for apparently remaining involved in WikiLeaks, when his status as an asylum grantee prevented him from getting involved in the affairs of other countries. Yet he stressed that, prior to revoking Assange’s claim, he gained a written guarantee from the UK that they would not extradite Assange to a country that could employ torture or the death penalty on him. Reports also indicate that Assange continually clashed with embassy staff. His WikiLeaks-related activities caused the embassy to strip him of internet access. Additionally, the embassy imposed tighter rules on him in late 2018, pushing him to pay his medical and phone bills, as well as better clean up after his pet cat.
After the arrest, District Judge Michael Snow of the UK wasted little time in finding Assange guilty of the 2012 charge of failing to surrender to the court. Although he would face up to 12 months in prison for this charge, it remains to be seen whether he will serve this time (or any time) in the UK, or if he will undergo extradition to the U.S. He is set to appear at the Westminster Magistrates’ Court on May 2 through video link to address the topic of extradition. The Swedish Prosecution Authority has even begun to consider reopening their investigation into an Assange, as the statute of limitations expires in August 2020.
Reactions to the arrest – and potential extradition – have proven mixed in the UK and across the globe. While Prime Minister Theresa May praised the ruling, noting that “in the UK, no one is above the law,” the opposition Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn objects to extradition, instead claiming that Assange brought to light “evidence of atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan.” The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) made clear their sharp opposition to the arrest and extradition request, declaring that “any prosecution by the United States of Mr. Assange for Wikileaks’ publishing operations would be unprecedented and unconstitutional, and would open the door to criminal investigations of other news organizations.”
According to his lawyer, Assange kept his comments brief, saying, “I told you so.”
While some view Assange’s arrest as an unjust attack against a freedom fighter, others view it as a long-deserved takedown of a criminal. Additionally, his potential extradition to the U.S. dramatically raises the stakes of the situation. Though some government officials and civil society activists believe a U.S. conviction of Assange a stab at the First Amendment, the Department of Justice has filed specific, narrow charges against Assange in the hope of making that point mute. Debate will undoubtedly continue on the legality of Assange’s actions, only to escalate when the U.S. decides whether or not to extradite him to the U.S.