Julian Assange: What you need to know about the WikiLeaks founder

The Australian-born whistle-blower is facing espionage and hacking charges in the US, facing up to 175 years in prison.

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Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy in the UK [File: Frank Augstein/AP]

On January 4, a British court blocked a United States request to extradite WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange.

The US has charged him with hacking government computers and espionage after he obtained and published hundreds of thousands of classified documents between 2010 and 2011.

District Judge Vanessa Baraister said extradition would be “oppressive” taking into account Assange’s mental health, saying he was at risk of suicide.

Assange was arrested in April 2019 by UK police from the embassy of Ecuador in London, where he had been granted asylum since 2012.

Here is what you need to know:

Who is Julian Assange?

Assange is an Australian-born computer programmer and founder of WikiLeaks – an international, non-profit whistle-blowing organisation that was created in Iceland in 2006.

The 49-year-old, a father, is WikiLeaks’ publisher and former editor-in-chief. In 2018, Icelandic journalist Kristinn Hrafnsson took over as editor.

Assange came to prominence in mid-2010 after WikiLeaks published US military logs from Afghanistan and Iraq, and US cable leaks in November that year.

Former US military personnel Chelsea Manning sent the information to Assange.

Manning was charged and sentenced to 35 years imprisonment in 2013 for violating the Espionage Act of 1917, and other offences.

The Espionage Act was passed to deter any interference in US military operations and prevent individuals and groups from supporting enemies of the United States.

Manning’s sentence was commuted in January 2017, days before then-US President Barack Obama left office.

What did WikiLeaks reveal?

WikiLeaks shot to fame in April 2010 after the website released a 39-minute video of a US military Apache helicopter firing over and killing more than a dozen Iraqis, including two Reuters journalists.

The footage leaked by private Manning led to global outrage, reigniting a debate over the US’s occupation of Iraq and wider presence in the Middle East.

In July that year, WikiLeaks, together with several media outlets, such as the New York Times, published more than 90,000 US military documents related to the War in Afghanistan.

These included previously unreported details about civilian deaths, friendly-fire casualties, US air raids, al-Qaeda’s role in the country, and nations providing support to Afghan leaders and the Taliban.

FILE PHOTO: Chelsea Manning speaks to reporters outside the U.S. federal courthouse shortly before appearing before a federal judge and being taken into custody for contempt of court in Alexandria, Vi
Former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning [File: Ford Fischer/News2Share/Reuters]

Months later, WikiLeaks published 391,832 documents related to the Iraq War. The reports, also referred to as The Iraq War Logs, provided on the ground details as reported by US troops, dating from January 2014 to December 2019.

The leaks were the single largest in US military history, exposing huge civilian casualties.

In November 2010, WikiLeaks published hundreds of thousands of US diplomatic cables, in what is now better known as the Cablegate scandal.

Some 250,000 reports were released, dating back to 1996 up until February 2010. The cables provided analysis and insights from more than 270 US embassies and consulates from around the world.

What is Assange charged with?

After Assange was arrested, a grand jury in the state of Virginia charged him with one count of computer intrusion/hacking for allegedly assisting Private Manning in accessing classified documents.

In May 2019, Assange was further charged – under the US Espionage Act of 1917 – on 17 counts for soliciting, gathering and publishing US military and diplomatic documents in 2010, all provided by Manning.

Assange is the first publisher to be charged under the act.

The leaks highlighted in the indictment include the US diplomatic cables, information on Guantanamo Bay prison detainees and Iraq and Afghanistan activity reports.

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Assange is seen in a police van after his arrest by British police at the Ecuadorian embassy in London [File: Henry Nicholls/Reuters]

What could happen to Assange?

The US government has said it will appeal the British court’s January 4 decision, with some expecting the trial to go all the way up to the UK Supreme Court.

If Assange is extradited to the US and charged under the Espionage Act, he could face up to 175 years in jail. On the less serious charge of computer intrusion, the WikiLeaks founder would receive a maximum of five years.

Extradition between the UK and the US is rare.

In 2012, a request from the US to extradite UK hacker Gary Mackinnon for hacking into US military databases was rejected. Similarly, the US refused a request from the UK earlier this year to hand over Anna Sachoolas, the wife of a US intelligence officer accused of killing a British citizen due to dangerous driving.

What happened to the sexual assault charges against him in Sweden?

The US indictment against Assange does not include any charges of rape, of which he was accused of by two Swedish women in 2010. Assange has repeatedly denied the accusations.

A Swedish court issued an international warrant for his arrest in 2010 so he could be extradited back to the nordic country. After being released on bail in the UK, Assange was granted asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in June 2012 by then-President Rafael Correa, where he resided for nearly seven years.

On November 19, 2019, all rape charges against Assange were dropped.

Why is this case important?

While supporters of the Wikileaks publisher have welcomed the UK court’s decision, many have expressed caution – noting that the case was not decided on the grounds of press freedom.

According to rights groups, Assange’s possible extradition and sentencing in the US would be a serious threat to free-speech rights and to the work of investigative journalists around the world.

Amnesty International has said the effect of Assange being convicted on investigative journalists, publishers and anyone who publishes classified government material would be “immediate and severe”.

US lawyers argue that charges against Assange could be challenged under the US’s First Amendment law, which protects the right to freedom of speech and expression.

Hearing to decide whether Assange should be extradited to U.S. in London
Assange supporters hold placards outside the Central Criminal Court ahead of a hearing to decide whether Assange should be extradited to the US, in London, UK [File: Peter Nicholls/Reuters]


Source: Al Jazeera