The WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange could face extradition to the United States after being arrested twice in London on Thursday.
Assange had spent seven years holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy, where he had diplomatic asylum to prevent being extradited to Sweden to face sexual molestation and rape inquiries. On Thursday, Ecuador finally gave him up to the police, who arrested him for bail-jumping. He was then re-arrested. Shortly afterwards, the U.S. Department of Justice unveiled hacking-conspiracy charges against him.
Here’s what you need to know about Julian Assange and what might happen to him next.
Who is Julian Assange?
Assange is an Australian hacker who set up WikiLeaks in 2006 as a service for publishing confidential information that, the organization believes, should be in the public domain.
WikiLeaks’s first major publication was that of U.S. Defense footage showing a 2007 American bomb strike in Iraq, which killed civilians including two Reuters correspondents. WikiLeaks released the gunsight footage under the name Collateral Murder. The footage was leaked to WikiLeaks by Chelsea Manning, a military intelligence analyst who went on to serve seven years in prison—she was sentenced to 35 years but President Barack Obama commuted her sentence. Manning has for the last month been back in jail for refusing to testify about WikiLeaks before a grand jury.
Collateral Murder came out in April 2010. Later that year, WikiLeaks released tens of thousands of classified Pentagon documents, and then began publishing a vast tranche of classified U.S. diplomatic cables. The organization initially released the cables piecemeal and in redacted form, in conjunction with established media outlets such as the Guardian and the New York Times, but an accidental release of the passphrase for the encrypted cable archive meant all the cables became exposed, and Assange ended up publishing them without masking the names of U.S. informants.
WikiLeaks’ made its next big splash with the 2016 publication of Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails, which revealed how the party top brass had been biased against then-primary candidate Bernie Sanders. The U.S. intelligence community subsequently asserted that the emails had been stolen by Russia hackers, then laundered through WikiLeaks.
But at this point, Assange was already a longstanding resident of the Ecuadorian embassy basement in Knightsbridge, London.
Why was Assange hiding?
Now rewind to 2010, when two WikiLeaks volunteers went to the police in Sweden to ask them to track Assange down so he could be tested for sexually-transmitted diseases—both women had had sex with him. Based on their statements, the police ordered his arrest for sexual molestation and rape. Assange submitted to questioning by the Stockholm police, but then, having not been charged by the Swedes, he left for the U.K.
The Swedish police still wanted to talk to him, though, and the country made an extradition request to the U.K. He fought the warrant but lost in successive U.K. court cases, all the way up to the Supreme Court. Then, fearing that Sweden would extradite him to the U.S. to face trial over the 2010 leaks—and, he claimed, possibly the death penalty—Assange asked Ecuador for asylum.
Ecuador’s center-left government granted his request, and in June 2012 he took refuge in the country’s London embassy. In doing so, he broke his bail conditions. He did not emerge until today.
Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno said in a video address that Assange had displayed “discourteous and aggressive behavior” against Ecuador and violated international treaties, leading to “a point where the asylum of Mr. Assange is unsustainable and no longer viable.”
Moreno, who took office in 2017, said he had “inherited” the situation from his predecessor, Rafael Correa, and had set protocols for Assange to follow, which Assange then flouted. “He particularly violated the norm of not intervening in the internal affairs of other states,” Moreno said, citing WikiLeaks’ recent publication of Vatican documents. He accused the hacker of installing equipment that blocked the embassy’s security cameras, mistreating embassy guards and accessing embassy security files without permission.
What happens now?
If Assange was simply facing the U.K. charge of skipping bail, he’d only be looking at a sentence of up to a year in British jail. But that’s not all. After the Ecuadorians invited London’s Metropolitan Police to come and get him, Assange was taken to a police station where he was then re-arrested on behalf of the U.S. authorities.
It emerged late last year that, much as Assange feared, American prosecutors had a sealed indictment ready and waiting for him—its existence was revealed by a filing error. On Thursday, the U.S. Justice Department unveiled its charge against Assange, for “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion for agreeing to break a password to a classified U.S. government computer.”
Assange stands accused of conspiring with Chelsea Manning to crack a Defense Department computer system password, so she could log into the system under someone else’s name and take the documents she then transmitted to WikiLeaks.
The charge carries a maximum sentence of five years. President Moreno had said in his video address that he had received a guarantee from the U.K. government that Assange would not be extradited to a country where he might face the death sentence.
The Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ) issued a statement after Assange’s initial arrest to say any charges relating to the Manning leaks would be an attack on all investigative journalists. However, the actual charge here is over alleged computer intrusion, not the publication of the documents that were subsequently taken from the DoD systems.
In a statement, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May hailed the arrest and said “this is now a legal matter for the courts.” U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt also praised Moreno for his “courageous decision.”
“We’re not making any judgement about Julian Assange’s innocence or guilt, that is for the courts to decide. But what is not acceptable is for someone to escape facing justice and he has tried to do that for a very long time and that is why he is no hero,” said Hunt.
But what about Sweden?
The Swedish investigation into Assange was discontinued in mid-2017, and the statute of limitations on most of his suspected crimes means those avenues are now permanently closed. However, the statute of limitations on one suspected rape crime will only expire in mid-August 2020.
That means the Swedes could now reopen that investigation and again request Assange’s extradition to Sweden to face further questioning. However, the Swedish chief prosecutor’s office said Thursday that Assange’s arrest had taken it by surprise, and it had not yet been able to take a position on what should happen next.