Julian Assange will soon leave the Ecuadorian embassy in London — his refuge from criminal charges for the last six years — and enter a changed world.
The Australian walked into the building in the capital’s Knightsbridge neighbourhood just before the 2012 Olympics, with Barack Obama in his first term and elections untainted by alleged interference by Russian agents. When he walks out, Assange will face a new more aggressive American president, a UK trying to find its role outside the European Union and a change in Ecuadorian leadership. The 47-year-old may find the future uncertain.
The WikiLeaks founder’s health has declined recently, and he’s expected to leave his self-imposed isolation in the embassy in the coming weeks, according to two people with knowledge of the matter. He sought refuge there to avoid Swedish rape allegations and the prospect of being extradited to the US to face sanctions for publishing secret government communications.
His continued freedom outside the embassy is far from guaranteed. He still faces arrest for skipping bail in London, and while American prosecutors haven’t announced charges against him, the risk is significant.
Assange has been all but cut off from the outside world in the embassy, just yards from department store Harrods, and diplomatic efforts to negotiate an exit have redoubled in recent months as concerns about his deteriorating health have increased and Ecuador’s patience has finally run out.
His options are limited, whether it’s a hospital visit, trying to flee the UK entirely or staying to fight his arrest warrant all the way to the supreme court. Just 1 850 people signed a petition on the New Zealand parliament’s website calling for Assange to be granted permanent political asylum. Throw in the prospect of criminal charges for hacking in Ecuador, one thing is for certain it’s not going to be simple.
Assange and WikiLeaks became notorious over the past decade for releasing millions of confidential documents between US agencies and their foreign counterparts. The website put itself at the centre of the last American presidential race by publishing hacked e-mails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
London’s Metropolitan Police Service declined to comment beyond saying that the warrant against Assange is still valid. The UK foreign and commonwealth office and a lawyer for Assange didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Assange’s supporters follow him with a fervour bordering on the messianic, holding him up as a champion of free speech and transparency who has uncovered multiple abuses of power. His critics say he should be punished for needlessly putting the lives of soldiers and diplomats at risk by publishing the confidential government cables.
In February, a London judge said Assange lacked “courage” and denied his attempt to overturn a British arrest warrant for failing to turn up an extradition hearing. His attorneys argued that the charge should be dropped since Swedish authorities closed the sexual-assault case when he failed to return to the Scandinavian country.
A month later, Ecuador cut his Internet and phone access because he breached an agreement not to get involved in internal matters of other countries. He had criticised the arrest of former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont and Britain’s expulsion of Russian envoys over the poisoning of an ex-spy outside London.
Things have grown worse under President Lenin Moreno, who has called Assange “a rock in a shoe” and an “inherited problem”. Moreno has said that his government wants to be rid of Assange, particularly given the anger from British and Spanish governments.
Moreno was in the UK last week officially to attend a disability summit but news reports suggested Assange was also on the agenda. “The only thing we want is the guarantee that his life will not be in danger” once he exits the embassy, given that there is no death penalty in Ecuador, Moreno said on Friday at an event in Madrid.
Adding an extra layer of complexity, Ecuador is mulling criminal proceedings against Assange for hacking into their computer system while in the embassy. The prosecutor’s office is reviewing evidence, but hasn’t announced a decision on charges.
Assange’s ties to Russia have made him a target in America, where attorney-general Jeff Sessions more than a year ago called prosecuting leakers of government information a priority for his justice department. Since Sweden dropped its earlier case against Assange for sexual assault, if the US charges him, it would likely seek his extradition directly from the UK.
The treaty requires that the crimes for which the US seeks extradition match with illegal actions under UK law. The UK, like many countries, refuses to extradite people without promises that the person won’t receive the death sentence. Therefore, in order to win extradition, the US might avoid espionage charges that carry the death penalty.
Assange would likely fight extradition based on an argument that the US-UK extradition treaty bars turning someone over to another country for political offences, according to Ashley Deeks, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law.
“He will obviously assert that the request is being made for political purposes,” Deeks said. “That will be something that the UK would have to grapple with because undoubtedly Assange would raise that.”
While certain violations of the Espionage Act call for possible prison terms of 20 years or more, the US might try to sidestep the political purpose argument by charging Assange with a less serious crime, Deeks said. Prosecutors may focus their case on the theory that Assange knowingly received stolen government property, a crime with a 10-year maximum, she said.
Another possibility is that prosecutors may try charge Assange with conspiring to communicate classified information that could harm the US or benefit a foreign nation. The argument would revolve around help he gave to former American soldier Chelsea Manning in the theft of classified material from the state and defence departments, Deeks said.
Asked last year about whether the US would arrest Assange, Sessions said his justice department would step up its efforts on all leaks and seek to put people in jail. No charges against Assange have yet to be made public and the justice department declined to comment. — Reported by Jeremy Hodges, Tom Schoenberg and Stephan Kueffner, with assistance from Tim Ross and Thomas Penny, (c) 2018 Bloomberg LP