Indictment and arrest of Julian Assange

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Sealed indictment of Julian Assange, returned 6 March 2018, released on 11 April 2019

Julian Assange was allegedly investigated by the Eastern District of Virginia grand jury for computer-related crimes committed in the U.S. in 2012. His request for asylum was granted and he remained a resident in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since 2012. In 2019, an indictment from 2017 was made public following the termination of his asylum status and the subsequent arrest by the Metropolitan Police of UK in London.[1] According to the indictment, Assange was accused of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion in order to help Chelsea Manning gain access to privileged information which he intended to publish on Wikileaks. This is a less serious charge in comparison to those leveled against Manning, and carries a maximum sentence of five years with a possibility of parole.[2]

Assange was arrested on 11 April 2019 by the London Metropolitan Police for failing to appear in court and now faces possible extradition to the US. His arrest caught media attention, and news of it went viral on social media, especially on Twitter and Facebook as it involved the possibility that the founder of Wikileaks and its editor-in-chief would be brought back to the US to face trial. Assange himself does not consent to extradition to the US, in an ongoing move to prevent this from happening.[3] On 23 May 2019, a grand jury added 17 espionage charges related to his involvement with former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, thus bringing a total of 18 federal charges against Assange in the US.[4][5] On 15 July 2019, documents revealed that Assange had used the Ecuadorian embassy to meddle in the 2016 US Presidential election and had met with Russian and various hackers from around the world to do so.[6]


Publication of material from Manning[edit]

Assange and some of his friends founded Wikileaks in 2006 and started visiting Europe, Asia, Africa and North America to look for, and publish, secret information concerning companies and governments that they felt should be made public. However, these leaks attracted little interest from law enforcement.[original research?]

In 2010, Assange was contacted by Chelsea Manning, who gave him classified information containing various military operations conducted by the US government abroad. The material included the Baghdad airstrike of 2007, Granai Airstrike of 2009, the Iraq War Logs, Afghan War Diaries, and the Afghan War Logs, among others.[7] Part of these documents were published by Wikileaks and leaked to other major media houses including The Guardian between 2010 and 2011.[8]

Critics of the release included Julia Gillard, then Australian Prime Minister, who said the act was illegal, and the Vice-President of the United States, Joe Biden, who called him a terrorist.[9][10] Others, including Brazilian president Luiz da Silva and Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa supported his actions, while Russian president Dmitry Medvedev said he deserved a Nobel prize for his actions.[11][12] The Manning leaks also led Wikileaks and Julian Assange to receive various accolades and awards,[13] but at the same time attracted police investigations.[citation needed]

Criminal investigation and indictment[edit]

Following the 2010 and 2011 Manning leaks, authorities in the US began investigating Assange and Wikileaks. Specifically, the investigations were being done by the Grand Jury in Alexandria, Virginia as of November 2011.[14] Assange broke bail to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he was wanted for questioning, and became a fugitive. The Australian government distanced itself from Assange.[15]

He then sought and gained political asylum from Ecuador, granted by Rafael Correa, after visiting the country's embassy in London.[16][17][18]

At the same time, an independent investigation by the FBI was going on regarding Assange's release of the Manning documents,[19] and according to court documents dated May 2014, he was still under active and ongoing investigation.[20] A warrant issued to Google by the district court cited several crimes, including espionage, conspiracy to commit espionage, theft or conversion of property belonging to the United States government, violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and general conspiracy. The indictment continued to remain sealed as of January 2019, although investigations seemed to have intensified as the case neared its statute of limitations.[21]

Arrest by the Metropolitan Police[edit]

After Assange's asylum was revoked, the Ambassador of Ecuador to the UK invited the Metropolitan Police into the embassy on 11 April 2019. Following this invitation, Assange was arrested and taken to a central London police station.[22] Assange was carrying Gore Vidal's History of the National Security State during his arrest.[23] The news of the arrest went viral on Twitter and Facebook within minutes of its happening and several media outlets reported it as breaking news. President Moreno is quoted to have referred to Assange as a "spoiled brat" in the wake of the arrest.[24]

CNN reported that "British police entered the Ecuadorian Embassy in London... forcibly removing the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on a US extradition warrant and bringing his seven-year stint there to a dramatic close."[25] At a hearing at Westminster Magistrates' Court a few hours after his arrest, the presiding judge found Assange was guilty of breaching the terms of his bail.[26] On 1 May 2019, Assange was sentenced to 50 weeks in prison.[27]

Sealed indictment[edit]

In 2012 and 2013, US officials indicated that Assange was not named in a sealed indictment.[28][29] On 6 March 2018, a federal grand jury for the Eastern District of Virginia issued a sealed indictment against Assange.[30]

In November 2018, US prosecutors accidentally revealed that Assange had been indicted under seal in US federal court; the revelation came as a result of an error in a different court filing, unrelated to Assange.[31][32][33][34][35]

Charge of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion[edit]

On 11 April 2019, the day of Assange's arrest in London, the indictment against him was unsealed.[36] He was charged with conspiracy to commit computer intrusion (i.e. hacking into a government computer), a relatively minor crime that carries a maximum 5-year sentence if found guilty.[37][38] The charges stem from the allegation that Assange attempted and failed to crack a password hash so that Chelsea Manning could use a different username to download classified documents and avoid detection.[39] This information had been known since 2011 and was a component of Manning's trial; the indictment did not reveal any new information about Assange.[39][40]

Charges under the Espionage Act[edit]

On 23 May, Assange was indicted on 17 new charges relating to the Espionage Act of 1917 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.[41] The Espionage Act charges carry a maximum sentence of 170 years in prison.[42] The Obama administration had debated charging Assange under the Espionage Act but decided against it out of fear that it would have a negative effect on investigative journalism and could be unconstitutional. The new charges relate to obtaining and publishing the secret documents. Most of these charges relate to obtaining the secret documents. The three charges related to publication concern documents which revealed the names of sources in dangerous places putting them "at a grave and imminent risk" of harm or detention. The New York Times commented that it and other news organisations obtained the same documents as Wikileaks also without government authorisation. It also said it is not clear how Wikileaks's publications are legally different from other publications of classified information.[43][44]

Most cases brought under the Espionage Act have been against government employees who accessed sensitive information and leaked it to journalists and others.[45] Prosecuting people for acts related to receiving and publishing information has not previously been tested in court.[43] In 1975, the Justice Department decided after consideration not to charge journalist Seymour Hersh for reporting on US surveillance of the Soviet Union.[45] Two lobbyists for a pro-Israel group were charged in 2005 with receiving and sharing classified information about American policy toward Iran. The charges however did not relate to the publication of the documents and the case was dropped by the Justice Department in 2009 prior to judgement.[43][45]

Assistant Attorney General John Demers said "Julian Assange is no journalist".[46] The US allegation that Assange's publication of these secrets was illegal was deemed controversial by Australia's Seven News as well as CNN.[44][47] The Cato Institute also questioned the US government's position which attempts to position Assange as not a journalist.[48] The Associated Press said Assange's indictment presented media freedom issues, as Assange's solicitation and publication of classified information is a routine job journalists perform.[49]

Stephen Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, stated that what Assange is accused of doing is factually different from but legally similar to what professional journalists do.[50] Vladeck also said the Espionage Act charges could provide Assange with an argument against extradition under the US-UK treaty as there is an exemption in the treaty for political offences.[44] Forbes magazine stated that the US government created outcry among journalists in its indictment of Assange as the US sought to debate if Assange was a journalist or not.[51] Suzanne Nossel of PEN America said it was immaterial if Assange was a journalist or publisher and pointed instead to first amendment concerns.[52]

Freedom of expression and information[edit]

Several jurists, politicians, associations, academics and campaigners consider that the arrest of Assange constitutes an attack on freedom of the press and international law.[53][54][55]

Freedom of expression and information in UK and Europe[edit]

Assange is the publisher of WikiLeaks, recognised as a "media organisation" in 2017 by a UK tribunal, contradicting public assertions to the contrary by some US officials, and possibly supporting Assange's efforts to oppose his extradition to the United States.[56][57][58][59] This is why the Dutch senator Tiny Kox asked the Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatovic, whether the arrest of Assange and his possible extradition to the US are inline with the criteria of the European Convention on Human Rights, because Assange can benefit from the protection of the right to freedom of expression and information according the Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.[60]

Eva Joly, magistrate and MEP, states that "the arrest of Julian Assange is an attack on freedom of expression, international law and right to asylum".[61] Sevim Dagdelen, a German Bundestag MP who specialises in international law and press law, describes the whistleblower's arrest as "an attack on independent journalism" and says that he "is today seriously endangered".[62][63] Dick Marty, a former attorney general of Ticino and rapporteur on the CIA's secret prisons for the Council of Europe, considers the arrest of whistleblowers "very shocking".[64][65] Several well-known Swiss jurists have asked the Federal Council to grant asylum to the founder of Wikileaks because he is threatened with extradition to the United States, which in the past "silenced whistleblowers".[66][67]

British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said that Assange had revealed "evidence of atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan" and his extradition to the United States "should be opposed by the British government".[68] Bolivian President Evo Morales and Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, also condemned it.[69][70]

Independent United Nations rights experts such as Agnes Callamard said "the arrest of Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange by police in the United Kingdom, after the Ecuadorian Government decided to stop granting him asylum in their London embassy, exposed him to the risk of serious human rights violations, if extradited to the United States".[71]

According to Amnesty International's Massimo Moratti, if extradited to the United States, Assange may face the "risk of serious human rights violations, namely detention conditions, which could violate the prohibition of torture".[72]

Freedom of expression and information in US[edit]

While US politicians encourage the arrest and indicment of Julian Assange, several non-governmental organization of press freedom condemn it.

Ecuadorian president Lenín Moreno, the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the British Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, U.S. Senator Mark Warner, Hillary Clinton campaign advisor Neera Tanden, and British Prime Minister Theresa May, who commented that "no one is above the law," are in support of the arrest.[70][73] Alternatively, it is has been asserted that such a move would be a threat to freedom of speech as protected by the first amendment to the US Constitution. This view is held by Edward Snowden, Daniel Ellsberg, Rafael Correa, Chelsea Manning, Jeremy Corbyn, Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch, and Glenn Greenwald, who said "it's the criminalization of journalism".[70][74][75][76]

Ecuadorean president Lenín Moreno said in a video posted on Twitter that he "requested Great Britain to guarantee that Mr Assange would not be extradited to a country where he could face torture or the death penalty. The British government has confirmed it in writing, in accordance with its own rules."[77] On 14 April 2019, however, Moreno stated in an interview with the British newspaper The Guardian that no other nation influenced his government's decision to revoke Assange's asylum in the embassy and that Assange did in fact use facilities in the embassy "to interfere in processes of other states."[78][79] Moreno also stated "we can not allow our house, the house that opened its doors, to become a centre for spying" and noted that Assange also had poor hygiene.[78][79] Moreno further stated "We never tried to expel Assange, as some political actors want everyone to believe. Given the constant violations of protocols and threats, political asylum became untenable."[78] On 11 April 2019, Moreno described Assange as a "bad mannered" guest who physically assaulted embassy security guards.[80][81]

Mark Warner, vice-chairman of the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, welcomed the arrest of Assange, saying that Assange is "a dedicated accomplice in efforts to undermine American security".[82] The president of the Center for American Progress and former Obama aide Neera Tanden also welcomed the arrest and condemned Assange's leftist supporters, tweeting that "the Assange cultists are the worst. Assange was the agent of a proto-fascist state, Russia, to undermine democracy. That is fascist behaviour. Anyone on the left should abhor what he did."[82]

According the editorial in The Times "the prosecution of Mr Assange could become an assault on the First Amendment and whistle-blowers".[83]

Ben Wizner from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) speculated that if authorities were to prosecute Assange "for violating US secrecy laws [it] would set an especially dangerous precedent for US journalists, who routinely violate foreign secrecy laws to deliver information vital to the public's interest."[84][85][84][85] The Reporters Without Borders said Assange's arrest could "set a dangerous precedent for journalists, whistle-blowers, and other journalistic sources that the US may wish to pursue in the future."[68] Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, wrote that Assange's prosecution for publishing leaked documents is "a major threat to global media freedom".[86] Freedom of the Press Foundation said: "Whether or not you like Assange, the charge against him is a serious press freedom threat and should be vigorously protested by all those who care about the first amendment."[86]

The French Union of Journalists (Syndicat national des journalistes (CGT) [fr]), said that "the dissemination of documents or information of public interest" could not be considered a legal offence. The union called on Britain "to refuse the extradition of Julian Assange to the United States and to release him."[87]

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and former Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa condemned Assange's arrest.[74][88] Snowden tweeted that "Assange's critics may cheer, but this is a dark moment for press freedom."[89] Daniel Ellsberg said "Forty-eight years ago, I was the first journalistic source to be indicted. There have been perhaps a dozen since then, nine under President Obama. But Julian Assange is the first journalist to be indicted. If he is extradited to the U.S. and convicted, he will not be the last.The First Amendment is a pillar of our democracy and this is an assault on it. If freedom of speech is violated to this extent, our republic is in danger. Unauthorized disclosures are the lifeblood of the republic."[90][91]

According to Ron Paul, Assange should receive the same kind of protections as the mainstream media when it comes to releasing information. He said "In a free society we're supposed to know the truth  ... In a society where truth becomes treason, then we're in big trouble. And now, people who are revealing the truth are getting into trouble for it." He added "This is media, isn't it? I mean, why don't we prosecute The New York Times or anybody that releases this?"[92]

The yellow vests movement called for Assange's release.[93][94][95]

Criticism of Espionage indictment[edit]

Widespread criticism from the news media and other public advocates ensued following Assange's arrest on Espionage charges. Multiple organizations and journalists criticized Assange's arrest as a journalist citing first amendment claims.

  • The New York Times state "Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks leader, has been indicted on 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act for his role in obtaining and publishing secret military and diplomatic documents in 2010, the Justice Department announced on Thursday — a novel case that raises profound First Amendment issues."[96]
  • The Guardian said: "By bringing new charges against the WikiLeaks founder, the Trump administration has challenged the first amendment"[97]
  • Edward Snowden said: The Department of Justice just declared war––€”not on Wikileaks, but on journalism itself. This is no longer about Julian Assange: This case will decide the future of media.[98]
  • HuffPost said: "The charges against the WikiLeaks founder bring up huge First Amendment issues."[99]
  • The Nation said: "The Indictment of Julian Assange Is a Threat to Press Freedom."[100]
  • The American Civil Liberties Union said: "For the first time in the history of our country, the government has brought criminal charges under the Espionage Act against a publisher for the publication of truthful information. This is a direct assault on the First Amendment."[101]
  • Jonathan Turley described the Assange indictment under the Espionage Act of 1917 as "the most important press freedom case in the US in 300 years".[102]

Aftermath of his arrest[edit]

Indictments and possible extradition to the US[edit]

Immediately following the arrest of Assange, the Eastern District of Virginia grand jury unsealed the indictment it had brought against him. According to the indictment, Assange was accused of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion in order to assist Chelsea Manning gaining access to privileged information which he intended to publish on WikiLeaks. This is a less serious charge than those leveled against Manning, and carries a maximum sentence of five years.[103]

Assange was arrested in April after being pushed out of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he had been living since 2012, avoiding an international arrest warrant, was sentenced to 50 weeks in prison by a British judge on 1 May 2019.[104]

Judge Deborah Taylor said Assange's time in the embassy had cost British taxpayers the equivalent of nearly $21 million, and that he had sought asylum in a "deliberate attempt to delay justice."

Assange offered a written apology in court, claiming that his actions were a response to terrifying circumstances. He said he had been effectively imprisoned in the embassy; two doctors also provided medical evidence of the mental and physical effects of being confined. To which the judge Deborah Taylor said "You were not living under prison conditions, and you could have left at any time to face due process with the rights and protections which the legal system in this country provides".

On 23 May 2019, Assange was indicted, in a superseding indictment, under the Espionage Act of 1917, in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia for offences relating to the publication of diplomatic cables and other sensitive information.[105] In the past the Act was used to charge Socialist congressman and newspaper editor Victor L. Berger, Emma Goldman and Eugene V. Debs.[102] The 23 May indictment adds 17 federal charges to the earlier federal indictment, thus bringing a total of 18 federal criminal charges against Assange from the US federal government with a sentence of up to 175 years in prison.[5][106][4][107][108] The charges are related to his involvement with Chelsea Manning, a former US Army intelligence analyst who gave Assange classified information concerning matters surrounding the US Defense Department.[4][5]

Revelations about use of Ecuadorian Embassy[edit]

On 15 July 2019, CNN obtained documents from an Ecuadorian intelligence official which confirmed that Assange used the embassy as the command center for Wikileaks.[6] The documents also revealed that during the 2016 election, Assange used the embassy to meet with Russians and world class hackers from different countries.[6]

See also[edit]


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