WikiLeaks Co-founder Julian Assange Arrested After Ecuador Withdraws Asylum

WikiLeaks Co-founder Julian Assange Arrested After Ecuador Withdraws Asylum

Julian Assange, co-founder of WikiLeaks, has been arrested in London after spending almost seven years inside the Embassy of Ecuador. The arrest reportedly happened on embassy premises soon after the Ecuadorean government withdrew its asylum protection.

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Decade-Long Saga Began in Sweden

Assange, 47, an Australian citizen, was wanted in the United Kingdom for failing to surrender himself to Westminster Magistrates’ Court in 2012. At that time was being held on bail in the U.K., which had cleared the way for his extradition to Sweden for questioning over sexual assault accusations.

He had remained at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London since fleeing there while on bail in mid-2012, and being formally granted asylum in August the same year. He had also been granted Ecuadorean citizenship, which was stripped alongside his asylum protection.

The U.K. Metropolitan Police posted on its website that it “had a duty to execute the warrant” for Assange’s arrest, and had been invited into the Embassy to do so. Footage from today’s arrest suggests he did not go willingly.

The big question of interest now is whether the U.S. will now move to extradite Assange over several incidents involving WikiLeaks’ activities since its founding in 2006. The organization, a publisher of leaked corporate and government documents, had upset many powerful people by releasing confidential information, most notoriously classified video footage from the Iraq War; a series of diplomatic cables that revealed secret communications between government officials from several countries; and the “Panama Papers” documents that uncovered tax-avoidance schemes used by wealthy companies and individuals.

Assange maintained that he sought asylum in the Ecuadorean Embassy out of fears either the Swedish or British governments would take advantage of his arrest to send him to the U.S. to face espionage, theft and computer-related charges. These fears were confirmed over subsequent years as officials confirmed they were preparing charges, then in early 2019 prosecutors accidentally revealed (in an unrelated case involving other parties) that charges had indeed been laid, and kept secret.

WikiLeaks has thrown its support behind Assange and stated that both Ecuador’s asylum withdrawal and his arrest were “illegal”.

Twists Worthy of a Spy Thriller

According to a Wikipedia list, Assange has had the third-longest stay within a diplomatic mission under its protection. He is also possibly the world’s most famous embassy refugee.

The tale is complicated and has many twists that could make it more so. These include:

Twist #1: Swedish Charges

Swedish police had already questioned Assange over the initial accusations in 2010, but closed the case and cleared him to leave the country — only to mysteriously re-open it later that year, file charges, and demand his return. Police refused to question him over video link, and dropped three of the four charges (as well as the arrest warrant) in 2017. The statute of limitations had expired over those three, however one is still outstanding, due to expire in 2020.

Twist #2: UK Charges

Although Swedish police no longer wished to extradite Assange, he remained wanted in the U.K. for breaching his 2012 bail conditions. Despite several formal requests for his release by United Nations officials, the U.K. refused to agree. A legal dispute could now ensue over whether the U.N. requests were binding under international law.

Twist #3: Ecuador and the US

The President of Ecuador in 2012, Raffael Corredo, had initially granted Assange asylum and allowed him to stay at its London Embassy indefinitely — citing credible concerns he required protection from the U.S. government. However a new (and far more U.S.-friendly) administration came to power in 2017, led by Lenin Moreno. Ecuador under Moreno put several restrictions on Assange’s activities at the Embassy, often cutting his internet access, limiting visitors, and monitoring his communications.

As a small country, Ecuador faced considerable financial and diplomatic pressure from the U.S. to hand over Assange. It was also footing the bill for his stay there, which included extra security detail and had continued for years longer than anyone had foreseen.

U.S. intelligence agency representatives and officials from both the Obama and Trump administrations (including former Attorneys General Eric Holder and Jeff Sessions) have referred to Assange as a criminal and called for his arrest. Several U.S. politicians have suggested Assange is a “traitor” and guilty of treason — despite him not being a U.S. citizen (which makes both accusations technically impossible).

President Moreno himself is currently involved in a corruption scandal following WikiLeaks’ “INA Papers” release, which had suggested Moreno had offered to trade Assange for U.S. debt relief. WikiLeaks tweeted in March 2019 that Ecuadorean authorities were pursuing the matter:

Twist #4: Australian Federal Election

The Australian government called a federal election less than a day before Assange’s arrest. Any unjust treatment of a citizen by foreign authorities could become an election issue, should either of the two major parties promise to support him. However the current Liberal Party government has refused to offer support, and the opposition Labor Party had stated previously when it was in power that it would not intervene.

Assange has a son who lives in Australia, and Assange’s mother Christine has lobbied regularly in person and online for his release.

Twist #5: Donald Trump

Although WikiLeaks had criticized both candidates in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, its leaks concerning Democrat Party machinations were considered more damaging to Hillary Clinton, and arguably helped Donald Trump win the election. Several WikiLeaks supporters have suggested Trump owes Assange a favor in return, though the president has never hinted he would honor that “debt”.

Twist #6: WikiLeaks Itself, and Celebrity Friends

One prominent Assange supporter over the years is the actress and activist Pamela Anderson, who has drawn much attention to the case. Anderson protested Assange’s arrest and had previously made appeals to the Australian government for help.

There have also been rumors that WikiLeaks itself has withheld potentially embarrassing or damaging information as collateral, should Assange face any serious threat. The organization has never confirmed if this is true or not.

Additionally, Assange and WikiLeaks enjoy a great deal of support from the online community — people who will no doubt keep the issue prominent and protest any move to punish either party.

Assange, WikiLeaks and Satoshi Nakamoto

WikiLeaks has accepted bitcoin donations since 2011. However Bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto had previously balked at suggestions the organization should be encouraged to accept BTC, saying it would bring the (then) fledgling cryptocurrency unwanted attention from governments.

Satoshi wrote in a post:

“No, don’t ‘bring it on.’ The project needs to grow gradually so the software can be strengthened along the way. I make this appeal to WikiLeaks not to try to use bitcoin. Bitcoin is a small beta community in its infancy. You would not stand to get more than pocket change, and the heat you would bring would likely destroy us at this stage.” At that time, Assange agreed with Satoshi.

At press time, Assange remains in U.K. police custody and is due to appear at the Westminster Magistrates’ Court soon.

What will, or should, happen to Julian Assange now? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Images via Twitter, David G. Silvers (via Wikimedia Commons)

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