- WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was arrested by British police on Thursday after Ecuador, whose London embassy had been his home for nearly seven years, withdrew his political asylum. He now faces potential extradition to the United States on conspiracy charges, and is due back in court in June for another hearing on the extradition case.
- In a London court, Mr. Assange was found guilty on Thursday of skipping British bail conditions back in 2012, when he lost a court battle against extradition to Sweden on sexual-assault charges. He will be sentenced at a later date for the bail-skipping charge.
- Mr. Assange’s American charges involve “one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States,” the U.S. Justice Department said in a statement. The allegations relate to Mr. Assange’s work with ex-soldier Chelsea Manning in 2010 to obtain a government password and leak secret documents. If convicted, Mr. Assange could face five years in prison.
- Ecuador’s President Lenin Moreno said his government made a “sovereign decision” to revoke Mr. Assange’s asylum due to “repeated violations to international conventions and daily life.” The South American nation also revoked Mr. Assange’s Ecuadorian citizenship, which he was granted last year in a move to end his stay at the embassy.
Who is Julian Assange?
The 47-year-old Australian founder of the whistleblower site WikiLeaks has been a thorn in the side of global intelligence agencies for years, particularly since 2010, when WikiLeaks published classified documents provided by soldier Chelsea Manning. The leaks included detailed logs of the U.S. missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as sensitive cables between diplomats and the State Department. (Ms. Manning spent seven years in prison for a variety of charges related to those leaks, until former president Barack Obama commuted her sentence in 2017.)
Shortly after the 2010 leaks, Swedish authorities, investigating allegations that he sexually assaulted two women, issued an international warrant for his arrest. British police arrested him in London, and for two years, he fought a legal battle to avoid extradition to Sweden, which he feared would then hand him over to the United States. When Britain’s Supreme Court okayed the Swedish extradition in 2012, Mr. Assange fled to the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he was granted asylum. He would end up staying at the embassy for nearly seven years.
Who wants him for what, and who doesn’t
It’s been no secret that U.S. authorities have had their eye on Mr. Assange for years, but until Thursday it wasn’t clear what he was specifically accused of. The Justice Department secretly filed criminal charges against Mr. Assange as recently as last year, which accidentally became public in an unrelated Virginia court case in November.
The indictment unsealed by the Justice Department on Thursday centres on a “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion” involving Mr. Assange and Ms. Manning. Prosecutors allege that he helped her crack a password stored on U.S. Defence Department computers that would unlock the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet), the system used by the Defence and State departments to communicate classified documents.
WikiLeaks has also been implicated in cyber-meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, because it leaked confidential Democratic Party e-mails obtained by Russian hackers. But while Russian spy agencies and several associates of U.S. President Donald Trump who communicated with WikiLeaks have been charged, Mr. Assange is not one of the people indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller in his now-concluded probe of the Trump-Russia connection.
British authorities have charged Mr. Assange for breaking his bail conditions in 2012, an offence punishable by up to a year in prison. He pleaded not guilty to the bail-skipping charge in his court appearance on the day of his arrest.
Swedish prosecutors dropped the rape case against Mr. Assange in 2017. Theoretically, they could reopen it if he returned there before the statute of limitations runs out in August, 2020, but Swedish chief prosecutor Ingrid Isgren said Thursday that “we have not been able to decide on the available information” whether that could happen. In any event, a return to Sweden seems unlikely given that U.S. authorities want him first.
Why was he arrested now?
Mr. Assange’s relationship with the Ecuadorians had been going sour in recent years as he flouted the conditions of his asylum while apparently continuing to co-ordinate WikiLeaks’ activities. Staff at the embassy complained that he was aggressive with security staff, rode a skateboard in the halls and flouted other rules of his living conditions. At one point he even sued Ecuador to have them pay his phone bills, medical expenses and clean up after his cat. The relationship deteriorated further when he was accused of leaking personal information about President Lenin Moreno’s personal life, including private photos of his family.
Finally, on Thursday, Ecuadorian officials invited British police to enter the consulate and take Mr. Assange. At least seven officers arrived to remove him. Mr. Moreno released a video statement saying “the patience of Ecuador has reached its limit” on Mr. Assange’s behaviour, and alleged that Mr. Assange violated international asylum rules by continuing to intervene in the affairs of other sovereign nations. As an example, Mr. Moreno brought up WikiLeaks’s release of Vatican documents in January.
In a sovereign decision Ecuador withdrew the asylum status to Julian Assange after his repeated violations to international conventions and daily-life protocols. #EcuadorSoberano pic.twitter.com/pZsDsYNI0B— Lenín Moreno (@Lenin) April 11, 2019
Reaction from WikiLeaks and its allies
WikiLeaks denounced the arrest as part of a campaign by "powerful actors" to discredit a publisher and journalist:
This man is a son, a father, a brother. He has won dozens of journalism awards. He's been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize every year since 2010. Powerful actors, including CIA, are engaged in a sophisticated effort to dehumanise, delegitimize and imprison him. #ProtectJulian pic.twitter.com/dVBf1EcMa5— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) April 11, 2019
Fellow whistleblower Edward Snowden, an American fugitive now living in Russia, also criticized the arrest, saying it set a dangerous precedent for freedom of expression:
Images of Ecuador's ambassador inviting the UK's secret police into the embassy to drag a publisher of--like it or not--award-winning journalism out of the building are going to end up in the history books. Assange's critics may cheer, but this is a dark moment for press freedom. https://t.co/ys1AIdh2FP— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) April 11, 2019
Compiled by Globe staff
Associated Press and Reuters, with reports from The New York Times News Service and Globe staff