After having his asylum revoked by Ecuador on April 11, Julian Assange was forcibly removed from the Embassy of Ecuador in London, where he had been residing since 2012, and arrested by the local Metropolitan Police. Assange has now been found guilty of jumping bail and faces possible extradition to the United States.
Who is Julian Assange?
Assange is an Australian-born computer programmer. In 2006, he founded WikiLeaks, a self-described multinational media organization that “specializes in the analysis and publication of large datasets of censored or otherwise restricted official materials involving war, spying and corruption.”
WikiLeaks gained infamy in 2010 when it published documents supplied by intel specialist Chelsea Manning. The leaked content included Collateral Murder, a 39 minute video of gun fire by U.S. soldiers at civilians during the Baghdad airstrikes, Afghanistan and Iraq war logs, U.S. diplomatic cables (known as CableGate) and Guantanamo Bay files.
After the Manning leaks, in December of 2010, the United States opened a grand jury in Virginia and began a federal investigation into WikiLeaks and Assange's activities. At the time, Manning testified that she acted alone, and Assange wasn’t charged.
In 2010, Swedish officials also released a European arrest warrant for Assange after two women accused him of sexual assault and rape.
Where has he been?
In Dec. 2010, after the European arrest warrant, Assange surrendered to United Kingdom police. Ten days later, he was released on bail. Unsuccessful in challenging his extradition, he breached his bail in 2012 and sought asylum at the Embassy of Ecuador. After being granted asylum, he was able to stay in the Embassy where he resided for nearly seven years, until his arrest in April.
Assange had a big year in 2017. Even though he still faced charges for breaching bail and potential indictment from the U.S., Sweden rescinded its arrest warrant. And Ecuador’s former foreign minister, María Fernanda Espinosa, granted Assange Ecuadorian citizenship, citing a policy that granted foreigners “international protection.” Her decision later caused problems for Ecuador’s President Lenín Moreno. He was unable to remove Assange from the Embassy because the Ecuadorian Constitution limits the government’s ability to turn over citizens to foreign legal systems if they could face the death penalty—which is outlawed in Ecuador.
On April 11, Ecuador suspended Assange’s citizenship and shelter due to Assange’s “repeated violations to international conventions and daily-life protocols.” Moreno told the BBC that Assange was hostile to staff, installed cameras to spy on them and spread his feces on the embassy’s walls. Reports also refer to Assange skateboarding and playing soccer inside. By ceasing his citizenship, London police were able to detain and arrest Assange — who refused to leave the Embassy with police officers.
What is his connection to the United States?
Beginning in 2010, WikiLeaks started publishing archives of secret American documents about military and diplomatic affairs. A grand jury investigation opened following the publishing of these documents, but the indictment was sealed and charges weren’t pressed.
The Obama administration debated whether to bring charges against Assange, eventually deciding against the notion for fear of setting a dangerous precedent for traditional journalism. However, under Trump, the government secretly filed criminal charges against Assange. The 2018 charges came to light in an unrelated case file in which prosecutors inadvertently mentioned the Assange case. The details of the indictment were not fully released until his arrest.
The unsealed indictment revealed that Assange is being charged for willingly conspiring with Manning in the illegal computer hacking of the Pentagon server. It was a surprise for some that Assange was not facing charges of espionage for publishing government secrets.
WikiLeaks and Assange are also linked to the leaking of thousands of private emails of the Democratic National Convention during the 2016 election. Russian hackers stole the emails, then provided them to WikiLeaks. Although those hackers have consequently been indicted, Assange’s conspiracy charge has no relation to Russia’s involvement in the presidential election.
Assange’s fate now
Assange is being extradited to the United States, and if he is convicted of conspiracy to hack, he can face up to five years in prison. Yet, the United States could decide to press additional charges, but that process would need to occur soon because Britain could decide to take custody of him.
Assange has indicated that he would fight the extradition warrant on the basis that it is politically, and not legally, motivated.
The controversy around Assange
For some, Assange is a representation of the free press and ability to hold the government accountable, even calling his case “Pentagon Papers 2.0.” For others, Assange is a criminal who exposed classified government secrets.
When Assange first began publishing American documents on WikiLeaks, journalists such as Scott Shane, a national security reporter for the New York Times, were able to use these documents in their reporting. As a result, they viewed him as one of their own. However, after some of his more recent stints, like with the D.N.C. emails, Assange's contemporaries are starting to regard him as an enemy of the democratic process.
Some fear that Assange's indictment would have huge First Amendment consequences by setting a dangerous precedent for journalists publishing sensitive documents in the future. However, Assange is currently only facing charges of conspiracy to hack, which would not step on the toes of traditional journalistic activity. Barry Pollack, Assange’s lawyer, says journalists should still be worried.