After six years, nine months and twenty days, Julian Assange’s stay at the Ecuadorian embassy in London ended this Thursday. After his South American hosts deprived the founder of whistleblower website WikiLeaks of his “diplomatic asylum,” he was arrested by the Metropolitan Police, who transferred him to a police station. The legal problems of the 47-year-old Australian are therefore entering a new, unpredictable phase.
1. Who is Julian Assange again?
Assange, trained as a computer programmer, founded the whistleblower website WikiLeaks in 2006. From 2010, the site made world news by hacking and publishing large loads of (confidential) US government documents. These revealed potential war crimes committed by the US in Afghanistan and Iraq. This was followed by an enormous mountain of diplomatic memos (Cablegate) and documents about the treatment of terror suspects on Guantánamo Bay.
It earned Assange worldwide sympathy among champions of greater government transparency and among left-wing or anti-American politicians and government leaders. In the US, on the other hand, he was classified as a state enemy who should be prosecuted or even liquidated. For example, Vice President Joe Biden called him “a terrorist” at the end of 2010.
2. How did he end up at the Ecuadorian embassy in London?
In 2010, Assange had problems with justice in Sweden, where three women reported to him for alleged rape and assault. At the end of that year, Sweden issued an international arrest warrant. Assange, who was in the United Kingdom at the time, reported to the British police and was released on bail. He challenged extradition to Stockholm, mainly for fear of being extradited to the US via Sweden. When he could no longer prevent this, he fled into the Ecuadorian embassy in the summer of 2012.
3. How did that stay go?
In 2012, left-wing anti-American President Rafael Correa was in power in Ecuador, who was eager to help Assange. However, since May 2017, another president rules in Quito: Lenín Moreno. He sailed a more right-wing course and approached Washington. Moreno even called the embassy guest “an annoyance” and “a problematic heirloom.”
The relationship also soured because Assange did not behave very well according to Ecuador. He would skateboard along the corridor, not change the litter box and not always take good care of himself. Moreover, Assange continued to interfere with all kinds of geopolitical issues from his exile, with WikiLeaks increasingly shifting to circles of extreme right-wing conspiracy thinkers. Last year his internet connection was cut off for some time. There were also court cases about the house rules.
The Moreno government made several attempts to discharge Assange. At the end of 2017, he even gave him the Ecuadorian nationality in a failed attempt to rename him as a diplomat and to make him inviolable, for example, to Moscow. Another world-famous whistleblower is already fleeing from the American authorities: Edward Snowden, the revealer of NSA secrets. He called the arrest of the ‘publicist’ Assange Thursday in a tweet ‘a black day for freedom of the press’.
4. Why has he been evicted now?
Ecuador has handed over Assange to the British authorities, because President Moreno accuses him of being harassing him and his family. At the beginning of March a load of e-mails, documents and photos was published on the web from the phones and tablets of Moreno and his wife and daughters. These so-called INA Papers would reveal that Moreno was bribed by a Chinese dam builder and diverted this money offshore. Justice in Ecuador has since opened a preliminary investigation into the allegations at the request of the opposition.
Moreno speaks of a campaign to destabilize his government. Assange would collaborate with former President Correa and the socialist Venezuelan leader Maduro. He does not provide any evidence for this.
5. What will happen to Assange now?
The indictments in Sweden have since expired. But the British still had an arrest warrant against Assange for violating the terms of his bail on his flight to the embassy. This is not a very serious offense.
The big question is whether he is extradited to the US, as he feared before his flight. The Americans have already requested this, the British authorities reported on Thursday. British Prime Minister May “welcomed” the arrest and said it is now “a matter for the judges” and that “no one is above the law.” Assange was immediately presented on Thursday.
Since 2012 there has been a rumor that there is a sealed indictment against Assange in the US, which would only become public once he has been arrested. At the end of 2018, the existence of this indictment seemed to accidentally leak out due to clumsy cut-and-paste work with another, unrelated court document.
6. What fate would await him in the US?
That depends on the charges that follow. The source of the first WikiLeaks revelations, the United States Army soldier Chelsea Manning, received 35 years in prison from a court martial. President Obama lowered that punishment.
On Thursday, the prosecutor in Virginia reported that he had requested Assanges extradition for conspiring with Manning when breaking into a government computer. The maximum sentence for this federal crime is five years.
An Assange trial in the US would also be politically vigorous. WikiLeaks played an important role in the 2016 election race won by President Trump. The site revealed tens of thousands of emails from the Democratic Party and from the controversial private server of Trumps opponent Hillary Clinton. This correspondence was captured by Russian hackers, concluded special prosecutor Robert Mueller last month, who was investigating the Russian interference in the 2016 election race.
Mueller found no evidence that there was coordination with Trumps campaign team about these hacks. But he did, among others, sue Trumps confidant Roger Stone, who maintained contact with WikiLeaks. Stone is facing trial later this year because he may have given false testimonies about this.