Following confirmation that the Wikileaks founder has been arrested – twice – today, Byline Times provides the background to his legal battles and asks which allegations will be prioritised.
In the first instance, Assange must answer to British law. His initial arrest in the UK was essentially due to the fact that he failed to surrender to a British court. This followed his breach of bail conditions after Sweden’s initial 2010 request to have him extradited following an allegation of rape, and a separate allegation of molestation, in Scandinavia.
But more challenging international legal issues loom large. Not least because, as Scotland Yard has now confirmed, the United States has made a formal request to extradite Assange under section 73 of the Extradition Act.
According to a Metropolitan Police Statement, Assange was “re-arrested” in relation to the separate US request once he arrived at a central London police station this morning.
The US justice department this afternoon released a statement confirming that Assange faces charges relating to “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion” and faces a maximum of five years in prison – if found guilty. The charges are linked to allegations that Assange conspired with former US soldier Chelsea Manning to hack into US defence department computers.
“The US government want to send a message and put Julian in a US jail”.Vaughan Smith, Frontline Club founder
Sweden, of course, issued a European Arrest Warrant (EAW) following the 2010 allegations against Assange, which he vehemently denies. He first appeared at Westminster Magistrates Court – which initially hears all UK extradition cases – and was bailed in 2010.
In an attempt to see off the extradition request, Assange took his case all the way to the Supreme Court in the UK, but failed.
Following the failed court bid, the 47-year-old Wikileaks founder sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in Knightsbridge in 2012, where he had remained until today’s arrest. Britain does not have an extradition treaty with the south American state.
During the period in which he resided inside Ecuador’s embassy, Sweden’s prosecuting authority effectively dropped the warrant for his arrest amid fears the rape case could be “timed out” due to a national statute of limitations. At that point, in theory, Assange faced no charges in Sweden because the local prosecution was effectively dormant.
But now that Ecuador has withdrawn Assange’s asylum – a move described by Wikileaks as a “violation of international law” – it is possible that Sweden could reactivate its extradition request. Sweden has until next year, 2020, to reactivate the request within its legal limitation period.
Elisabeth Massi Fritz, a lawyer for one of the women who reported allegations in Sweden, recently took to social media to suggest that she could push for such a move. She urged Ecuador to “do the right thing” and withdraw Assange’s asylum.
European Law versus US Law
This is where things get complicated. Assange and his supporters have always feared that the bigger extradition threat came from the United States. Assange always suspected the Americans wanted to question him over the activities of Wikileaks – including the huge leak of sensitive data which led to the arrest and prosecution of Manning.
Manning’s sentence in the US was later commuted by then-president Barack Obama.
Elisabeth Massi Fritz, a lawyer for one of the women who reported allegations in Sweden, recently took to social media to suggest that she could push Sweden to reactivate its extradition request.
Wikileaks also became a central player in the US investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, after the website published emails stolen by Russian hackers during Hilary Clinton’s Democratic campaign.
In November 2018, details began to emerge of a potential criminal complaint in the US against Assange. A court filing, reportedly submitted in error by US prosecutors in an unrelated case, indicated charges had been lodged against somebody named in the documentation as “Assange”.
Vaughan Smith, founder of the Frontline Club who provided accommodation to Assange during his UK legal battles before he sought asylum, today told the Byline Times: “The US government want to send a message and put Julian in a US jail”.
“This is not wholly dissimilar from the Salisbury poisoning (case) during which the Russian government wanted to send a message to dissidents.”
If Julian Assange is not extradited for any reason, then he only faces a potential prison sentence for failing to surrender to a UK court, the maximum punishment for which is months and not years in jail.
UPDATE 11 April 2019: Julian Paul Assange, aged 47, appeared at Westminster Magistrates this afternoon. He entered a plea of “not guilty” to the charge of failing to surrender to a UK court in 2012.
District Judge Michael Snow found Assange guilty of failing to surrender to a UK court – and his case has been referred to Crown Court for sentencing.
Julian Assange will re-appear at Westminster Magistrates (by video link) on 2 May, to hear the next stage of the US extradition request. He will next appear on the bail offence at Southwark Crown Court on a date yet to be announced.