In Depth

Julian Assange: what is happening to the WikiLeaks founder?

US lawyers lay out ‘binding assurances’ in effort to win extradition appeal

Lawyers for the US have told the High Court in London that the judge who blocked the extradition of Julian Assange was misled about the WikiLeaks founder’s mental state.

The US government is beginning a legal appeal to have the publisher and activist extradited over the publication of thousands of classified documents in 2010 and 2011.

In January, a district judge overseeing the appeal ruled that Assange could not be sent to the US “due to concerns over his mental health”, the BBC said. His lawyer stated at the time that the risk of suicide would be “imminent the moment extradition becomes likely”.

James Lewis QC, representing the US, yesterday told the High Court that “conclusion was wrong”, the broadcaster added, arguing that “Assange’s psychiatrist had misled the earlier judge and the US had not been given an opportunity to answer her concerns”.

Assange the hacker

In September 1991, at the age of 20, Assange gets his first taste of the long arm of the law when he is caught hacking into the Australian headquarters of Nortel, a Canadian multinational telecommunications corporation.

According to The Sydney Morning Herald, Assange was the “ringleader” of a small organisation of three described by a prosecutor as “looksee” hackers motivated purely by “arrogance and a desire to show off computer skill”. When the case finally comes to trial, in December 1996, Assange pleads guilty to 25 charges, but escapes jail due to the perceived absence of malicious or mercenary intent.

In December 2006, Assange launches WikiLeaks. The first document posted on the website is a paper signed by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys of Somalia calling for the execution of government officials by hired hit men.

According to the site, the goal of WikiLeaks is “to bring important news and information to the public ... One of our most important activities is to publish original source material alongside our news stories so readers and historians alike can see evidence of the truth”.

In November 2010, WikiLeaks begins to release what it says are 251,287 diplomatic cables acquired from an anonymous source, prompting the US Department of Justice to open an investigation. The source is discovered to be army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, who is later convicted under the Espionage Act. 

WikiLeaks becomes the subject of international attention when five newspapers - El Pais (Spain), Le Monde (France), Der Spiegel (Germany), The Guardian (UK) and The New York Times (US) - publish 220 of the cables that WikiLeaks received from Manning.

The leaked material reveals “how the US military had killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents during the war in Afghanistan”, the BBC said, “while leaked Iraq war files showed that 66,000 civilians had been killed and prisoners tortured by Iraqi forces”.

Sexual assault allegations

In December 2010, Assange is arrested in London after Sweden issues an international arrest warrant over two allegations - one of rape and the other of molestation - by separate women.

He denies the claims. Assange is “later granted conditional bail at the High Court, bankrolled by his supporters, who pay £240,000”, The Guardian reported.

In November 2011, Assange loses his appeal against extradition to Sweden. His supporters say they fear that extradition to Sweden will result in him being extradited to the US to face charges of espionage.

The Obama administration had repeatedly called Assange a “hi-tech terrorist” and expressed an intention to prosecute him when the opportunity arose.

The embassy years

In June 2012, after the UK Supreme Court denies Assange's final appeal against his extradition, hee enters the Ecuadorian embassy in London and is granted temporary asylum. The decision “put him in violation of his UK court bail, and it was clear that he’d be arrested by authorities if he ever tried to leave”, said Engadget.

In August 2012, Assange makes his first public appearance in two months. Speaking from the balcony of the embassy, he asks the US government to “renounce its witch-hunt” against Wikileaks.

In February 2016, the UN’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention says that the WikiLeaks founder has been arbitrarily detained by UK and Swedish authorities since his arrest in 2010, and that the detention violates his human, civil and political rights.

The UK rejects this charge and says that the panel’s decision won’t prevent Assange from being arrested if he leaves the embassy.

The following August, Assange and WikiLeaks are implicated in the hacking and leaking of emails between leading Democrats in the 2016 US presidential elections.

According to The Atlantic, Assange also exchanged secret correspondence with Donald Trump Jr, son of the Republican candidate, in the run-up to the election. Despite the alleged link, following the Trump victory the then-attorney general, Jeff Sessions, tells reporters that Assange’s arrest remains a “priority”.

In 2018, a leaked memo from the Ecuadorian government reveals signs of friction between diplomats and their long-term house guest. Months earlier, Assange’s internet access had been suspended on the grounds that he had been using it to “interfer[e] in other countries’ affairs”.

The memo lays out a list of rules that he must follow in order to have his internet restored, including a warning “to provide better care of the feline that he shares the embassy with or it may be handed to a refuge”, said the BBC.

The memo also implores “Assange and his guests to keep the bathroom clean”, according to The Guardian.

Failure to comply with the terms “could lead to the termination of the diplomatic asylum granted by the Ecuadorian state”, the letter warns. In response, Assange accuses Ecuador of violating his “fundamental rights and freedoms”.

Arrest and developments

In April 2019, Assange is arrested for breach of his bail conditions after Ecuador revokes his political asylum and invites Metropolitan Police officers inside its embassy in Knightsbridge. Ecuador’s President Lenin Moreno says Assange’s asylum has been withdrawn as a result of his repeated violations of international conventions.

The then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn argues that Assange should not be extradited to the US “for exposing evidence of atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan”. 

In a tweet, Corbyn posts a video released by WikiLeaks that allegedly shows Pentagon footage of a 2007 air strike “which implicated US military in the killing of civilians and two journalists”, reported the BBC.

On 1 May, a judge sentences Assange to 50 weeks in prison for breaching his bail conditions. 

On 21 October, Assange appears in court as part of his bid to fight extradition to the US, where he faces 18 counts including conspiracy to hack government computers and violating espionage law. He could be sentenced to up to 175 years in prison if convicted.

Without the long beard he had during his last public appearance in May, the 48-year old “appeared in good health” but “mumbled and stuttered for several seconds as he gave his name and date of birth at the start of a preliminary hearing”, Reuters reported.

When the judge asked him at the end of the hearing if he knew what was happening, he replied “not exactly”, complained about the conditions in jail and said he was unable to “think properly”.

Assange’s lawyer, Mark Summers, tells the court his client was “gripped” by fear that if extradited to the US, he might be sent to Guantanamo Bay or face other charges that carry the death penalty. He argues that Assange’s extradition hearing should be delayed by three months due to the complexity of the case.

However, the judge at Westminster Magistrates Court rejects any delay, meaning the full would extradition hearing will go ahead as planned in February 2020. Assange is remanded in custody because there were “substantial grounds” for believing he would abscond, said the BBC.

Further delays

After a week of opening arguments, Assange’s extradition hearing begins on 24 February 2020. The Guardian reported the next day that his lawyers had claimed the prisoner was “handcuffed 11 times, stripped naked twice and had his case files confiscated after the first day of his extradition hearing”. 

The case is then pushed back due to the coronavirus pandemic, and in March 2020 Assange is denied bail after claiming he was at risk of catching Covid-19 in Belmarsh prison. The judge says “there are no conditions that allay” the concern that he would again abscond. 

A group of MPs, journalists and human rights advocates in Australia call on the government in Canberra to intervene in Assange’s case in June 2020.

Weeks later, the US Department of Justice submits a further indictment against Assange, “adding no new charges but expanding on the charge for conspiracy to commit computer intrusion”, a group of 40 rights groups say in a letter to the UK’s justice secretary, Reporters Without Borders said. 

A four-week hearing begins on 7 September 2020, despite Assange’s lawyers' attempt to adjourn the case. During the proceedings, the court hears that “plans to poison or kidnap Julian Assange from the Ecuadorian embassy” had been discussed between US intelligence sources and a private security firm, The Guardian reported. The hearing ends on 2 October, with the delivery of the judge’s ruling set for the new year.

In January 2021, a UK judge blocks a request by the US Justice Department to extradite Assange on the grounds of concerns of “mental harm”. “The overall impression is of a depressed and sometimes despairing man fearful for his future,” said Judge Vanessa Baraitser. 

The possibility that Assange would be detained in “near-solitary confinement in a ‘supermax’ prison... proved decisive”, said Dominic Casciani, BBC home and legal correspondent.

Judge Braraitser says: “I am satisfied the procedures described by the US will not prevent Mr Assange from finding a way to commit suicide”. Two days later, she denied the prisoner’s application for bail. 

In July 2021, days after Assange turned 50, a High Court official grants the US government permission to appeal the London court’s decision. If the appeal succeeds, “Assange won’t be held in a supermax jail if extradited and will be allowed to serve prison time in Australia”, an unidentified source informed Bloomberg. The latter claim has been described as “grossly misleading” by Asange’s fiance Stella Moris.

Later in the month, Ecuador revokes the citizenship granted to Assange in January 2018 as part of a failed attempt by the then-government of President Lenin Morena to provide him with diplomatic status, allowing him to leave its embassy in London. 

The decision was the result of “a claim from the country's foreign ministry based on multiple inconsistencies” within Assange’s naturalisation letter, the Daily Mail reported. Authorities said they followed standard practice by revoking citizenship when it has been received fraudulently, the paper continues. Assange remains in Belmarsh prison.

In August 2021, lawyers for the US begin their appeal to extradite Assange. The lawyers say that the US government has “now given four binding assurances as to how Assange would be treated”, the BBC said.

These include promises that “it would not impose a highly restrictive form of solitary confinement on Assange before or after trial” and that “Assange could apply to serve a sentence in Australia and the US would agree to that transfer”.

They also state that he will have access to “any clinical and psychological treatment” that prison doctors recommend and that he will not be detained in ADX Florence, “a US ‘supermax’ prison, reserved for the worst offenders”.

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