The US is desperate to extradite the WikiLeaks founder on allegations of conspiracy to expose dangerous secrets.
Julian Assange has become the ultimate prize for the United States during his seven years hiding out in the Ecuadorean embassy.
The US Justice Department claims he is responsible for “one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States”.
After Ecuador withdrew Assange’s asylum status, British authorities stormed the embassy and dramatically arrested the WikiLeaks founder.
Police confirmed the move came in response to a US extradition request, with the Australian facing a single charge of conspiracy to disclose classified information capable of being used to harm the United States.
The Queensland-born computer programmer has been trying to avoid the law for almost a decade, with Sweden also pursuing him over sexual assault and rape allegations. The 47-year-old claims the accusations are part of a plot to silence him for leaking government secrets, and now the legal battle is on.
THE ‘COLLATERAL MURDER’ VIDEO
Assange set up WikiLeaks in 2006 to expose confidential documents on matters the organisation thought were important to the public interest.
He found international fame in 2010 when WikiLeaks published a cache of documents, videos and diplomatic cables obtained by former US intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning.
These included the infamous “Collateral Murder” video, which showed US soldiers laughing as they fired from a helicopter in Iraq in 2007, gunning down a dozen people, including two Iraqis working for Reuters news agency.
The leak was highly damaging for the US government, which claimed the releases put American lives at risk, and Ms Manning was arrested.
She was found guilty in 2013 of charges including espionage, but only served seven years of her 35-year prison term after Barack Obama reduced her sentence.
Last month, Ms Manning was again jailed — this time indefinitely — in Virginia after she refused to testify before the US grand jury investigating WikiLeaks. The court ordered her to be held until she agreed to cooperate with the investigation which is using secret hearings.
“I will not participate in a secret process that I morally object to, particularly one that has been used to entrap and persecute activists for protected political speech,” Ms Manning, 31, said at the time.
In a tweet posted after Assange’s arrest overnight, Ms Manning’s legal team said: “This is further evidence that the government’s continued imprisonment of Chelsea for her principled stance against grand jury secrecy is punitive, cruel and unnecessary.”
It also “strengthened their claims of grand jury abuse,” according to a statement from Ms Manning’s support team.
** STATEMENT: Chelsea's legal team responds to today's unsealed indictment. This is further evidence that the government's continued imprisonment of Chelsea for her principled stance against grand jury secrecy is punitive, cruel and unnecessary https://t.co/WZiDuVWHPa
Last year, the state of Virginia charged Assange with conspiracy. The indictment alleged that he assisted Ms Manning in cracking a password and hiding her identity in order to access classified information on Department of Defence computers, and carries a maximum sentence of five years.
Experts say the fact the charge relates to illegally obtaining material rather than its publication is intended to avoid breaching the First Amendment, which ensures press freedom.
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. #ProtectJulianpic.twitter.com/dVBf1EcMa5
Nearly 7yrs after entering the Ecuadorean Embassy, I can confirm Julian Assange is now in police custody and rightly facing justice in the UK. I would like to thank Ecuador for its cooperation & @metpoliceuk for its professionalism. No one is above the law
After the series of embarrassing leaks in 2010, the US opened a criminal investigation into Assange, and asked allied governments for help.
In November of that year, Sweden issued an international arrest warrant for Assange on allegations of sexual assault and rape relating to 10 days he had spent in Stockholm in August. Assange has always denied the “politicised” allegations, contending that he would be extradited from Sweden to the US.
The following month, Assange gave himself up to British police. He was electronically tagged and released on bail after his supporters paid $440,000.
The investigation into the alleged rape was dropped in 2017 because of his protected status at the embassy — but a charge of skipping bail in the UK remained in place.
On Thursday, the Ecuadorian government withdrew Assange’s asylum after its president Lenin Moreno said the country had “reached its limit” on his behaviour, and invited Scotland Yard to the embassy.
The WikiLeaks founder was taken to court and found guilty of breaching bail, with the judge calling him a “narcissist”. He faces a sentence of up to 12 months for the conviction.
Assange’s defence was that he couldn’t expect a fair trial in British courts as the UK’s purpose was to “secure his delivery” to the US.
He has said he fears he could face the death penalty if extradited to US, but the Ecuadorean president said the UK had confirmed it would not extradite Assange to a country where he could face a death sentence.
Assange will now face a US extradition hearing, beginning on May 2, which could drag on for years.
The Swedish Prosecution Authority is also considering whether to resume the inquiry into the rape allegation before the statute of limitations runs out in August 2020. Elisabeth Massi Fritz, lawyer for the unnamed woman, said “we are going to do everything” to have the case reopened “so Assange can be extradited to Sweden and prosecuted for rape”.
THE RUSSIA CONNECTION
A final element of interest is how this relates to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
WikiLeaks published Democratic emails stolen by Russian intelligence officers in 2016, a leak thought to have damaged Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and assisted Donald Trump’s win.
The indictment does not make any allegations of involvement in Russian election interference, but WikiLeaks was repeatedly mentioned in criminal cases brought by Mr Mueller.
Trump confidant Roger Stone was found to have boasted of connections to the organisation and of advance knowledge of the publication plans.
Mr Trump overnight said: “I know nothing about WikiLeaks. It’s not my thing.”
But he reportedly brought it up 145 times in the final month of his campaign, calling it “a treasure trove” and saying, “I love WikiLeaks”.
The upcoming legal battle will bring all these questions to the force, reinvigorating the debate on both the left and right into whether Assange is a persecuted hero or dangerous security risk.
Donald Trump, who said "I love WikiLeaks" on the campaign trail, now says "I know nothing about WikiLeaks, it's not my thing".
The weakness of the US charge against Assange is shocking. The allegation he tried (and failed?) to help crack a password during their world-famous reporting has been public for nearly a decade: it is the count Obama's DOJ refused to charge, saying it endangered journalism. https://t.co/xdTQ8xauB0
JULY 2010 WikiLeaks releases its Afghanistan War Diary, a collection of some 90,000 mainly secret US government documents relating to the military engagement of Allied forces in Afghanistan.
AUGUST 2010 Swedish prosecutors issue arrest warrant for Assange in connection with claims of sexual offences.
OCTOBER 2010 WikiLeaks publishes 400,000 classified documents in its Iraq War Diary.
DECEMBER 2010 Assange gives himself up to British police. He is released on bail after his supporters pay £240,000 ($AU438,770) in cash and sureties. He is electronically tagged and the legal battle over his extradition to Sweden begins.
FEBRUARY 2011 Belmarsh Magistrates’ Court in London rules that Assange should be extradited to Sweden. Assange vows to appeal against the decision fearing extradition to the US.
MAY 2012 The Supreme Court rules that Assange should be extradited to Sweden.
JUNE 2012 Assange takes refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London and claims political asylum. British authorities threaten to arrest him if he leaves the embassy.
AUGUST 2012 Ecuador grants Assange asylum.
AUGUST 2015 Swedish prosecutors drop three cases of alleged sexual offences against Assange, but say the investigation into a suspected rape in 2010 is ongoing.
FEBRUARY 2016 A UN panel says Britain and Sweden have been subjecting Assange to “arbitrary detention” and that he should be released.
DECEMBER 2016 Assange says he is innocent in “politicised” rape case.
MAY 19, 2017 Swedish prosecutors say they are dropping their preliminary investigation into a rape allegation.
MAY 24, 2017 Leftist Lenin Moreno is inaugurated as president of Ecuador and states Assange can remain in embassy but warns him not to meddle in Ecuador’s domestic politics and labels him a “hacker”.
DECEMBER 12, 2017 Ecuador grants Assange citizenship.
JANUARY 24, 2018 Moreno makes it plain that Assange has overstayed his welcome, saying his inherited problem was “like a stone in your shoe”.
FEBRUARY 6, 2018 A British court rules that the arrest warrant for Assange for breach of bail conditions remains valid.
MARCH 28, 2018 Ecuador suspends Assange’s internet access and banned him from receiving visitors because his social media messages are putting its “good relations” with Britain, the European Union and other nations “at risk”.
OCTOBER 2018 Ecuador imposes a new set of house rules on Assange, saying he must clean his bathroom, look after his cat, James, and pay for his own electricity and internet.
NOVEMBER 15, 2018 Reports emerge in the US that Assange has been charged under seal by the US Justice Department for unspecified crimes.
APRIL 2, 2019 Moreno accuses Assange of repeatedly violating the terms of his asylum. He says that private photographs of himself and his family have been circulated online, though does not directly accuse WikiLeaks of circulating the hacked photos.
WikiLeaks says Moreno’s statement is retaliation for WikiLeaks having reported on corruption allegations against Moreno.
APRIL 4, 2019 WikiLeaks says Assange is to be kicked out of the embassy in “hours to days”.
APRIL 11, 2019 British police arrest Assange at Ecuador’s embassy after the country’s government revoked his asylum status.