A London court on Wednesday ordered the extradition of the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the United States, the latest but not the last step in a long-running battle in British courtrooms. The order to extradite Assange, who is being sought by the US in connection with charges under the Espionage Act, must be signed by the British home secretary, Priti Patel. Assange has four weeks to appeal to her directly, and he also has the right to take his case to the English High Court after she issues her decision.
We take a look back at what the case is against the WikiLeaks founder and why has the trial dragged on for so long.
Why is Assange wanted in the US?
On April 5, 2010, a 39-minute video was released by a website called wikileaks.org that showed gun-sight footage of two US AH-64 Apache helicopters in action during the Iraqi insurgency against the US occupation in 2007. The video showed the helicopter crew firing indiscriminately and killing civilians and two Reuters war correspondents. For nearly three years, Reuters had sought access to this video that would have shed light on the killing of its correspondents, via the US Freedom of Information Act but had failed.
Assange has been wanted by the US since 2010 when WikiLeaks released nearly 4,00,000 documents called the Iraq War Logs from the US Department of Defense databases by the intelligence analyst Bradley Manning (who later referred to herself as Chelsea), who acted as a whistle-blower. Manning had copied these files into a CD-ROM and uploaded them onto a WikiLeaks dropbox.
WikiLeaks promptly released the war logs that were published by a host of media organisations and exposed human rights abuses by occupation forces besides the increased fatality counts in Iraq. Later, WikiLeaks also published then presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s aide John Podesta’s emails before the 2016 presidential elections. While the WikiLeaks portal was maintained and sustained by hundreds of volunteers, the site was represented publicly by its founder and director Julian Assange. In December 2018, the website also published a searchable database of more than 16,000 procurement requests that were made by US embassies around the world.
The WikiLeaks model — using cryptographic tools to protect sources and allowing for anonymous “leaks” of sensitive information (that could also be in public interest) to be published — suddenly brought forth a new model of extensive investigative journalism into areas that were relatively kept in the dark from the public eye.
What were the charges brought against him?
The Barack Obama administration started investigation of the Manning leaks, and Manning was convicted by court martial in July 2013 for violating the Espionage Act and underwent rigorous
Things changed under former President Donald Trump as he charged Assange of collaborating in a conspiracy with Manning to crack the password of a Defence Department network to publish classified documents and communications on WikiLeaks in a sealed indictment in April 2017. These charges were unsealed in 2019.
Later, the Trump administration further charged Assange with violating the Espionage Act of 1917 and he was indicted on 17 new charges related to the Act at the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. These charges carry a maximum sentence of 170 years in prison.
Assange waged a prolonged legal battle against his extradition following his arrest in London in 2019, after he spent seven years holed up inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in an effort to avoid detention. After then Ecuador President Lenin Moreno revoked his asylum and his citizenship on April 11, 2019, following Assange’s disputes with Ecuador authorities, he underwent imprisonment for 50 weeks for bail violations during his refuge at the Ecuador Embassy in London.
A district judge, Vanessa Baraitser, ruled in January 2021 that he could not be extradited to the US because of concerns about his mental health and the possibility of suicide in a US prison with stringent incarceration conditions. However, bail was denied to Assange as he was assessed as a flight risk and US prosecutors were allowed an appeal which they filed on January 15, 2021.
On December 10, 2021, the High Court ruled in favour of the US following the Joe Biden administration’s assurances on the terms of Assange’s possible incarceration — that it would not hold him at the highest security prison facility and that if he were convicted, he could serve his sentence in his native Australia if he requested it.
Assange appealed against the verdict in the British Supreme Court, but on March 14, the Court refused permission to appeal. Finally, a London court this week ordered the extradition.
What happens to Julian Assange if he is extradited to the US?
In the US, Assange will face criminal charges under the Espionage Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The Espionage Act prohibits people from obtaining information relating to the national defence with intent or reason to believe that the information to be obtained is to be used to the injury of the US or to the advantage of any foreign nation.
Amnesty International recently called on US authorities to drop charges against him and not seek his extradition. In 2016, a United Nations panel also spoke in Assange’s favour. After the court’s ruling, Amnesty International posted on their Twitter account, “This is a travesty of justice. By allowing this appeal, the High Court has chosen to accept the deeply flawed diplomatic assurances given by the US that #Assange would not be held in solitary confinement in a maximum security prison.”
Assange’s partner Stella Moris has been raising funds to fight his extradition. “Julian exposed the killing of unarmed civilians and the torture of innocent people. For that the people who are driving this want to bury Julian in the deepest, darkest corner of the US prison system for the rest of his life. Julian faces a potential sentence of 175 years,” the crowdsource page set up by Moris says.
Who is Julian Assange and what did he do?
Assange has been wanted by the US since 2010, when WikiLeaks – that calls itself a “multi-national media organisation and associated library” – published thousands of diplomatic cables and military documents handed to it by the rogue US Army serviceperson Chelsea Manning. The 2010 leaks also included a chilling POV video of a US Apache helicopter in Iraq gunning down 12 people, including two Reuters journalists.
In December 2018, the website published a searchable database of more than 16,000 procurement requests that were made by US embassies around the world.
Assange, who is Australian, founded WikiLeaks in 2006. In a 2015 interview to Spiegel, Assange said, “WikiLeaks is a giant library of the world’s most persecuted documents. We give asylum to these documents, analyze them, promote them and obtain more. WikiLeaks has more than 10 million documents and associated analyses now.”
He also said in the interview that most of the readers of WikiLeaks come from India, followed by the US.
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But why is Assange in the UK?
In 2010, Sweden announced that it was investigating Assange in a case of rape and molestation, an accusation brought forth by two women. It went on to issue an extradition warrant against Assange, who was in the UK at the time. Attempting to fight the Swedish warrant, Assange approached a British court in 2011. The ruling did not go in his favour, and he subsequently lost an appeal in the UK Supreme Court in June 2012.
Out on bail, Assange sought refuge at the Embassy of Ecuador in London, the Latin American country which was at the time led by the leftist leader Rafael Correa. Ecuador formally accepted his request for asylum in August 2012. Assange had been living in the Ecuadorian embassy in London ever since — until his arrest in 2019.
For jumping bail, the Westminster Magistrates Court in 2012 issued a warrant for his arrest if he left the Ecuadorian embassy. Assange maintained that the charges were false, and only a ploy to have him extradited to the US.
WikiLeaks / Indian Express