Out of the embassy: what next for Julian Assange?

Out of the embassy: what next for Julian Assange?

After years in the Ecuadorian embassy, the founder of Wikileaks now faces an uncertain future.

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, is facing extradition to the US under charges that he conspired with Chelsea Manning, a former intelligence analyst for the US Army, to commit espionage by disseminating classified information.

KEY INSIGHTS

– Assange has been found guilty of breaching bail terms in the UK and is facing a sentence of 12 months in prison
– Assange has filed complaints to the UN regarding inhumane conditions and privacy violations during his time in asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London
– Assange’s impending trial may set a new precedent for freedom of speech and freedom of the press, with potential repercussions for future investigative journalism

In mid-April, the Ecuadorian government revoked the political asylum of Julian Assange, who spent nearly seven years inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London seeking political asylum and avoiding extradition to Sweden on charges of sexual assault and molestation. He and his supporters were fearful that his extradition to Sweden would lead to a subsequent extradition to the US over the release of classified US government documents in 2010 gained from former intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning.

Ecuadorian officials had grown frustrated with Assange, stating that they spent over £3.7 million on Assange’s protection since August 2012. Ecuador’s position towards Assange shifted after the pro-Assange Ecuadorian President Rafael Correra was voted out in favour of the more critical Lenín Moreno, who stated in January 2019 that Assange was not abiding by the “norm of not intervening in the internal affairs of other states”. Complicating matters further, Assange’s father has now also come forward with accusations that the Ecuadorian government had been bribed in the form of a US bank loan via the International Monetary Fund to release Assange.

Assange is now seeking justice against the Ecuadorian government for violating his right to privacy. This allegation was made only one day before Ecuador revoked Assange’s asylum status. Ecuador hit back, alleging that Assange used the embassy as a centre for spy operations. Assange has also previously complained to the UN in 2016 about being unlawfully detained in the embassy. He claimed that his inability to leave the embassy without arrest or possible extradition amounted to illegal detention. The UN found in favour of this complaint and ruled that Assange had been “arbitrarily detained”.

This ruling was not legally binding and had limited influence in the UK legal system but may have contributed to Swedish prosecutors dropping the sexual assault case against Assange in 2016 and the European Arrest Warrant issued for his arrest. However, Sweden could still reopen the case and argue for Assange’s extradition. Assange has labelled the Swedish allegations a “smear campaign” and a cover for extradition to the US. After Assange’s removal from the Ecuadorian embassy, he was arrested and found guilty of skipping bail and violating bail conditions, charges that bring up to 12 months in UK prison. The US has now stated its intention to present a formal argument for extradition in a UK court in June 2019 and acknowledged that there is a potential for additional charges to be laid against him.

WHISTLEBLOWER OR FREE SPEECH CHAMPION?

U.S. Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visits Joint Task Force Guantanamo to learn about and observe first-hand the detention faciity and service members who support the mission March 9th, 2016. / Julian Assange

Photo: Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro / Department of Defense

Assange first ran into trouble with the law in 1995 in Australia when he faced accusations of hacking. Wikileaks was established in 2006 and soon earned an international reputation for releasing confidential information, especially concerning the US. Wikileaks has focused on releasing information about the conditions of the US detention camp in Guantánamo Bay, war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as diplomatic cables from US embassies. These releases have driven investigations into human rights abuses by the US government while the continued release of information has reportedly compromised operations and personnel in the intelligence and diplomatic community, leading to some hailing Assange as a champion of free speech and human rights and others to villainise him as a security threat.

The website also contributed to campaign email leaks during the 2012 and 2016 US  presidential elections. Investigations into the 2016 election revealed that Assange was supported by Russian intelligence agents to release information on Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, which may have influenced the outcome of the election. The release of Clinton’s emails was also well-timed for the Trump campaign, as they appeared on Wikileaks on the same day as the release of Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood tape. Trump spoke highly of Wikileaks and Assange during the campaign, mentioning him 141 times after the email release.

REPERCUSSIONS OF AN AMERICAN CONVICTION

President Donald J. Trump unveils his new national security strategy during a speech in Washington, D.C., Dec. 18, 2017. / Julian Assange

Photo: Joyce N. Boghosian

It is unclear whether Trump’s favour will translate into Assange escaping a conviction. The US Department of Justice has raised concerns about the potential precedent set for free speech if Assange is found guilty. However, this greatly depends on how prosecutors frame their argument against Assange.

The threat to the freedom of the press comes from an indictment based on the dissemination of confidential information. In the 2010 case against Chelsea Manning, who worked with Assange to leak 750,000 confidential US government documents, Manning was only charged with “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion”, which holds a sentence of five years. After these documents were leaked, news organisations including the New York Times and The Guardian published several still-classified documents, which means they could be charged too. Questions have also been raised as to whether other outlets that commented on the leaked information would also be violating the law.

Given Trump’s anti-press rhetoric during his presidency, it is possible that the administration may favour a harsh precedent for journalists who leak, investigate or publish classified information. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a conviction could be used in other legal arguments against journalists, accusing them of soliciting information or preventing interaction with specific sources. These convictions could hinder investigations of other stories, including stories from within the Trump administration. Given the constitutional protection afforded to freedom of speech, it is unlikely that the Trump administration would seek to restrict journalistic freedom, however, this may create a dangerous precedent for freedom of the press going forward.

Based on the inaction of the Obama-era Department of Justice, it’s unlikely that Assange will be charged with disseminating confidential information. However, in light of Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections exposed in the Muller report, Trump may be willing to pursue a harsh sentence against Assange to detach himself from the scandal. This response may also be fuelled by Assange’s potential trial occurring during the 2020 presidential election.

The Muller report has revealed that Donald Trump Jr. was in direct contact with Wikileaks about the release of Clinton’s emails. Muller’s report may be used to lay further charges against Assange but it may also give Assange the chance to give evidence against the Trump administration if the report eventually results in legal action against the president. Trump has been distancing himself from Assange, refusing to comment on his pending case and contradicting his campaign tweets. A clearer idea of the charges Assange will face in the US will be revealed in the prosecutor’s argument to the UK for extradition in June.