The story so far: On April 20, the Westminster Magistrates’ court in London formally issued an order to extradite Wikileaks founder Julian Assange to the U.S. The court sent the order to Home Secretary Priti Patel, who will decide whether to permit the extradition. According to reports, his lawyers have four weeks to make submissions to Ms. Patel. If she approves the extradition, Mr. Assange can also try to challenge it by judicial review. The 50-year-old Mr. Assange is wanted in the U.S. on criminal charges, including breaking the Espionage Act, after WikiLeaks published thousands of secret U.S. files in 2010.
What did Mr. Assange do?
On April 5, 2010, a 39-minute video was released by a website, called wikileaks.org, that showed gun-sight footage of two U.S. AH-64 Apache helicopters in action during the Iraqi insurgency against the U.S. 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 U.S. Freedom of Information Act but had failed.
On April 5, 2010, a video was released by wikileaks.org, which showed showed two U.S. AH-64 Apache helicopters firing indiscriminately and killing civilians and two Reuters war correspondents in the Iraqi insurgency of 2007.
This prompted the release of multiple classified documents which led to the rise of a new kind of extensive investigative journalism, known as the WikiLeaks model.
Under the Trump administration, Mr. Assange was charged with multiple accusations including that of violating the Espionage Act of 1917. Mr. Assange in that time spent seven years in asylum in the small Ecuador Embassy in London after refusing extradition to Sweden. After the asylum was revoked, he underwent trial in the U.K. on whether he should be extradited to the U.S. to face the charges.
The release of the video by WikiLeaks was made possible by the leak of nearly 4,00,000 documents called the Iraq War Logs from the U.S. Department of Defense databases by the intelligence analyst Bradley Manning (who later referred to herself as Chelsea), who acted as a whistle-blower. Ms. Manning had copied these files into a CD-ROM and uploaded them onto a WikiLeaks dropbox.
WikiLeaks promptly released the war logs which were published by a host of media organisations and exposed human rights abuses by occupation forces besides the increased fatality counts in Iraq. The War Logs’ release was followed by the publication of several news stories based on thousands of leaked diplomatic cables that were also released by Ms. Manning, leading to significant public exposure of the ways, lifestyles and attitudes of the elite in various countries. 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 shielded from the public eye.
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.
What are the charges brought against Mr. Assange by the U.S. government?
The Barack Obama administration began investigation of the Manning leaks, and Ms. Manning was convicted by court martial in July 2013 for violating the Espionage Act and underwent rigorous imprisonment before her sentence was commuted in January 2017 by the President. However, the administration concluded that it would not pursue criminal charges against Mr. Assange and WikiLeaks. This is because it would have been inconsistent with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that guarantees freedom of the press, implying that the Obama administration looked at WikiLeaks’ exposures as journalistic work.
The U.S. Justice Department under former President Donald Trump charged Mr. Assange with collaborating in a conspiracy with Ms. Manning to crack a password on a Defense 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 Mr. Assange with violating the Espionage Act of 1917 — 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. In June 2020, the charges were further expanded for conspiracy with hacker groups.
What was the trial in the U.K. about?
Mr. Assange underwent trial in the U.K. on whether he should be extradited to the U.S. to face the charges. Before the trial began, he spent seven years in asylum in the small Ecuador Embassy in London, after refusing extradition to Sweden to face charges of rape, which were later dismissed by Swedish prosecutors. The then Ecuador President Rafael Correa had extended asylum to Mr. Assange, but he could not guarantee safe passage for travel as British authorities threatened arrest as soon as he left the Embassy premises. Mr. Assange had always indicated that extradition to Sweden was a ploy for him to be handed over to the U.S.
After then Ecuador President Lenin Moreno revoked his asylum and his citizenship (granted in 2018) on April 11, 2019, following Mr. 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 U.S. because of concerns about his mental health and the possibility of suicide in a U.S. prison with stringent incarceration conditions. However, bail was denied to Mr. Assange as he was assessed as a flight risk and U.S. prosecutors were allowed an appeal which they filed on January 15, 2021.
On December 10, 2021, the High Court ruled in favour of the U.S. following the Joe Biden administration’s assurances on the terms of Mr. Assange’s possible incarceration — that it would not hold him at the highest security prison facility (ADX Florence in Colorado which houses terrorists, drug traffickers, and high-profile criminals) and that if he were convicted, he could serve his sentence in his native Australia if he requested it.
Mr. Assange appealed against the verdict in the British Supreme Court, but on March 14, the Court refused permission to appeal. Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union petitioned the U.S. Government to drop the charges. In a statement, Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, had said, “Bringing criminal charges against a publisher for the publication of truthful information establishes a dangerous precedent that can be used to target all news organisations that hold the government accountable by publishing its secrets. Any prosecution by the United States of Mr. Assange would be unprecedented and unconstitutional, and would open the door to criminal investigations of other news organisations. The Government needs to immediately drop its charges against him.”