Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, has been arrested in London and charged with conspiracy to commit computer intrusion over his alleged role in the leaking of classified United States government documents. Assange has already been found guilty of failing to surrender British police, who took him from the Ecuadorian embassy, where he has been living for nearly seven years, having claimed asylum there. Here’s what we know so far.
Why was Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy in the first place?
Assange sought extraterritorial asylum in the Ecuadorean embassy in London in June 2012 when an arrest warrant was issued against him in Sweden for accusations of sexual assault. He claimed that these charges were part of an international effort to silence his organisation WikiLeaks, which has become famous for publishing leaked, and often classified, information about governments across the world.
Importantly, the government of Ecuador took the view at the time that if the UK arrested him, he would be sent to the US to face treason charges relating to WikiLeaks exposures. Assange claimed that he could face the death penalty for those charges. Since both Ecuador and the UK are parties to the 1951 Convention on Refugees, they are obliged to consider whether there is a real risk that a person seeking asylum could lose their life if they were handed over to another authority when deciding whether they have to protect them.
What were the charges against him in Sweden?
The Swedish charges related essentially to a “preliminary investigation” into accusations of sexual offences, including an alleged rape. The proceedings began in 2012, but by August 2015, the Swedish prosecutors dropped parts of their investigation. The investigation into the allegation of rape was also dropped in May 2017.
What are the charges against him in the US?
The exact charges against Assange have not been clear up until now. This was partly why Ecuador and so many of his supporters backed his claims to political asylum. In the wake of Assange’s arrest, the US government has issued further details about a federal charge of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion “for agreeing to break a password to a classified US government computer”. A statement from the Department of Justice accuses Assange helped former intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning crack a password that would enable her to download classified records to transmit to WikiLeaks.
Assange has already been found guilty of failure to surrender. What does that mean?
In pursuit of the sexual assault charges, Sweden issued a European Arrest Warrant against Assange, which meant the UK authorities were required to act. Judges in the UK granted Assange bail at the time of this initial arrest, but with strict conditions. However, while the case was being considered, Assange entered the Ecuadorian embassy and was granted political asylum on June 16 2012. In failing to leave the embassy, he breached his bail conditions. When his asylum was revoked, he was immediately charged and subsequently found guilty of failing to surrender. He is yet to be sentenced but could face up to 12 months jail time under UK law.
Why were British police suddenly able to enter the Ecuadorian embassy?
Simply put, the police could go into the embassy for the first time in nearly seven years because the Ecuadorian government revoked Assange’s asylum. The “premises of a diplomatic mission” including buildings or parts of buildings and the land ancillary to it are, inviolable according to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations 1961.
However all such rights are subject to the right of a country to grant a waiver and the agents of a receiving state may enter diplomatic premises with the consent of the head of the mission. Such waivers are expected to be in writing and there will be a document to evidence this in the hands of the UK government.
Why did the Ecuadorian government withdraw asylum from Assange?
The Ecuadorian government issued a statement accusing Assange of “discourteous and aggressive behaviour” and of violating international asylum conventions. We don’t know exactly what he has done but Ecuadorian president Lenín Moreno said in a video statement that he had failed to abide by the norm of “not interfering in the internal affairs of other states”.
Assange has been a difficult guest in some ways. His continuous communication with the outside world and the way he wrote himself into the legend of the last US presidential elections would certainly have been against the intentions of Ecuador in granting him extraterritorial asylum.
Extraterritorial asylum – which is asylum granted outside the territory of the state itself – is indeed a contested practice in international law and the UK had been quite accommodating in recognising what is, in essence, a subpractice of Latin American states within international law.
What will happen to Assange now?
Although the British authorities appear to have given some assurances to the Ecuadorean authorities that Assange will not be extradited to the US, they will probably embark on a very truncated extradition process in conjunction with the US authorities and he may soon be in the US. It is unclear what president Donald Trump’s position on his case is, but the president has spoken in his favour in the past. There might be a clash of political interests between the US intelligence community and the presidency about what to do with Assange.
Can the UK demand that the US commit to not executing Assange if he is extradited?
Yes, this demand can be easily made and will most likely be granted because it is simply not in line with modern democracies to apply the death sentence in political and crimes of conscience cases. The US government has said he faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison. Actual sentences for federal crimes are typically less than the maximum penalties.