Ecuador rescinded asylum granted nearly seven years ago to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
● British police entered the Ecuadoran Embassy in London and arrested Assange, ending a lengthy standoff.
● A U.S. federal court unsealed a 2017 indictment charging Assange with conspiring to publish classified U.S. documents.
PARIS — British authorities arrested WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on Thursday in response to a U.S. extradition request, and a U.S. federal court unsealed an indictment charging him with a single count of conspiracy to disclose classified information that could be used to injure the United States.
Assange was taken into custody by British police after Ecuador rescinded his asylum at its embassy in London, ending a standoff that lasted nearly seven years.
London’s Metropolitan Police said a statement that Assange was “arrested on behalf of the United States authorities” and would “appear in custody at Westminster Magistrates’ Court as soon as possible.” British police originally sought custody of Assange for jumping bail after Sweden requested his extradition in a separate case stemming from sexual assault allegations.Ecuador makes ‘sovereign decision’ to withdraw Assange’s asylum status
Ecuadoran President Lenin Moreno announced April 11 that the country had made the decision to withdraw WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s asylum status. (Presidency of Ecuador via Storyful)
In an indictment unsealed hours later, Assange was accused of conspiring in 2010 with Chelsea Manning, a U.S. Army intelligence analyst then known as Bradley Manning, and other conspirators to publish secret military and diplomatic documents that Manning had collected.
Jennifer Robinson, Assange’s lawyer, said on Twitter before the unsealing that her client was “arrested not just for breach of bail conditions but also in relation to a US extradition request.”
Britain’s Home Office said in a statement that Assange “was arrested in relation to a provisional extradition request from the United States,” where he is “accused . . . of computer related offences.”
The U.S. indictment unsealed Thursday accuses Assange of agreeing to help Manning break a password to the Defense Department’s computer network in 2010. That, prosecutors alleged, would have allowed Manning to log in with another username. The indictment includes no evidence that the password-cracking effort actually succeeded.
Even before the password cracking, though, Manning had given WikiLeaks hundreds of thousands of classified records, prosecutors alleged. The material allegedly included four nearly complete databases, comprising 90,000 reports from the Afghanistan war, 400,000 reports from the Iraq war and 250,000 State Department cables.
Robinson told The Washington Post that Assange met this morning with the Ecuadoran ambassador, who notified him that his asylum was being revoked. Then the Metropolitan Police were invited in to the embassy, where they arrested him, the lawyer for Assange said.
She confirmed that the U.S. indictment was issued in December 2017 on a charge of conspiracy with Chelsea Manning dating to 2010. Manning was imprisoned for seven years for violations of the Espionage Act and other offenses after turning over hundreds of thousands of classified or sensitive military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks.
Video of the arrest showed a gray-bearded Assange being pulled by British police officers down the steps of the embassy and shoved into a waiting police van. Assange appeared to be physically resisting. His hands were secured in front of him, but he appeared to be clutching a copy of Gore Vidal’s “History of the National Security State.”
Ecuador, which took Assange in when he was facing a Swedish rape investigation in 2012, said it was rescinding asylum because of his “discourteous and aggressive behavior” and for violating the terms of his asylum.
The British government heralded the development. “Julian Assange is no hero and no one is above the law,” Jeremy Hunt, Britain’s foreign secretary, wrote on Twitter. “He has hidden from the truth for years.”
Hunt said it was Assange who was “holding the Ecuadoran Embassy hostage in a situation that was absolutely intolerable for them.” He added: “So this will now be decided properly, independently by the British legal system respected throughout the world for its independence and integrity, and that is the right outcome.”
He said Britain and Ecuador have been talking “for a very long time about how to resolve this situation.” He praised Ecuadoran President Lenín Moreno for making “a courageous decision, which has meant we were able to resolve the situation today.” Hunt said that “what is not acceptable is for someone to escape facing justice, and [Assange] has tried to do that for a very long time, and that is why he is no hero.”
Sweden dropped its sex crimes inquiry in May 2017 — Assange had always denied the allegations. But he still faces up to a year in prison in Britain for jumping bail in 2012.
And, more than anything, he fears extradition to the United States, which has been investigating him for espionage, the publication of sensitive government documents and coordination with Russia.
London’s Metropolitan Police carried out the Thursday morning arrest and said in a statement that they were “invited into the embassy by the ambassador, following the Ecuadorian government’s withdrawal of asylum.” In response, the Russian government accused Britain of “strangling freedom” by taking custody of Assange.
“Ecuador has sovereignly decided to terminate the diplomatic asylum granted to Mr. Assange in 2012,” Moreno said in a video statement tweeted by the country’s communications department. “The asylum of Mr. Assange is unsustainable and no longer viable.”
The Ecuadoran president specifically cited Assange’s involvement in what he described as WikiLeaks’ meddling in the internal affairs of other countries, referring to the leaking of documents from the Vatican in January.
“Mr. Assange violated, repeatedly, clear-cut provisions of the conventions on diplomatic asylum of Havana and Caracas, despite the fact that he was requested on several occasions to respect and abide by these rules,” Moreno said Thursday. “He particularly violated the norm of not intervening in the internal affairs of other states. The most recent incident occurred in January 2019 when WikiLeaks leaked Vatican documents.”
“Key members of that organization visited Mr. Assange before and after such illegal acts,” Moreno said. “This and other publications have confirmed the world’s suspicion that Mr. Assange is still linked to WikiLeaks and therefore involved in interfering in internal affairs of other states.”
WikiLeaks confirmed Assange’s arrested and used the occasion as a fundraising opportunity on Twitter.
“This man is a son, a father, a brother,” the group said in a tweet, above a headshot of Assange. “He has won dozens of journalism awards. He’s been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize every year since 2010. Powerful actors, including CIA, are engaged in a sophisticated effort to dehumanise, delegitimize and imprison him.”
The group had earlier threatened long-term consequences if Ecuador turned Assange over to the British. “If President Moreno wants to illegally terminate a refugee publisher’s asylum to cover up an offshore corruption scandal, history will not be kind,” WikiLeaks said in a statement.
From Moscow, fugitive American former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden described the scene of Assange’s arrest as a violation of press freedom. “Images of Ecuador’s ambassador inviting the UK’s secret police into the embassy to drag a publisher of — like it or not — award-winning journalism out of the building are going to end up in the history books,” Snowden wrote on Twitter. “Assange’s critics may cheer, but this is a dark moment for press freedom.”
Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, said in a statement: “Any prosecution by the United States of Mr. Assange for WikiLeaks’ publishing operations would be unprecedented and unconstitutional, and would open the door to criminal investigations of other news organizations. Moreover, prosecuting a foreign publisher for violating U.S. secrecy laws would set an especially dangerous precedent for U.S. journalists, who routinely violate foreign secrecy laws to deliver information vital to the public’s interest.”
Barry Pollack, Assange’s U.S.-based attorney, said that while the indictment charges Assange with conspiracy to commit computer crimes, the factual allegations against him “boil down to encouraging a source to provide him information and taking efforts to protect the identify of that source.” Pollack added in a statment: “Journalists around the world should be deeply troubled by these unprecedented criminal charges.”
Ahead of the U.S. election in 2016, WikiLeaks released tens of thousands of emails that had been stolen from the Democratic National Committee and from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, in cyber-hacks that U.S. intelligence officials concluded were orchestrated by the Russian government.
While he was campaigning for president, Donald Trump repeatedly expressed appreciation for WikiLeaks’ publication of stolen emails damaging to Clinton’s campaign.
“WikiLeaks — I love WikiLeaks!” he said in October 2016 at a rally in Pennsylvania, waving a report on the latest disclosures. “Boy, I love reading those WikiLeaks,” Trump said a few days before the election after a new dump of emails.
When special counsel Robert S. Mueller III indicted 12 Russian military intelligence officers, he charged that they “discussed the release of the stolen documents and the timing of those releases” with WikiLeaks — referred to as “Organization 1” in the indictment — “to heighten their impact on the 2016 presidential election.”
Among the former Trump aides indicted as a result of Mueller’s investigation was Roger Stone, a longtime friend of Trump’s who was accused of lying, obstruction and witness tampering. His indictment charged that he sought to gather information about hacked Democratic Party emails at the direction of an unidentified senior Trump campaign official.
Assange has been on U.S. prosecutors’ radar since 2010, when WikiLeaks’ publication of 250,000 diplomatic cables and hundreds of thousands of military documents from the Iraq War prompted denunciations by then-Secretary of State Clinton and senior Pentagon officials.
The Army private who had passed the material to WikiLeaks, Manning, was tried, convicted and served seven years of a 35-year prison term before having her sentence commuted by President Barack Obama as he left office. She was jailed again last month for refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating Assange.
In the last administration, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. decided against pursuing prosecution of Assange out of concern that WikiLeaks’ argument that it is a journalistic organization would raise thorny First Amendment issues and set an unwelcome precedent.
Some federal prosecutors say a case can be made that WikiLeaks is not a journalistic organization. As if to lay the groundwork for such an argument, in April 2017, then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo, now secretary of state, characterized WikiLeaks as a “nonstate hostile intelligence service” and a threat to U.S. national security.
Pompeo also noted then that the intelligence community’s report concluding Russia interfered in the 2016 election also found that Russia’s primary propaganda outlet, RT, “has actively collaborated with WikiLeaks.”
Assange’s expulsion from Ecuador’s embassy reflects a shift in the country’s politics since it first extended refuge to him.
Leftist former president Rafael Correa, now living in Belgium, is wanted for arrest in his homeland over alleged links to a 2012 political kidnapping. Correa was viewed as a member of an anti-Washington gaggle of South American leaders, including Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro and Bolivia’s Evo Morales. He kicked out the U.S. ambassador in 2011.
The more moderate Moreno, in sharp contrast, has sought to mend frayed ties with the United States, Ecuador’s largest trading partner, and has dismissed Assange as “a stone in my shoe.”
In June 2018, Vice President Pence visited Quito, the capital, as part of the most senior U.S. delegation sent to Ecuador in years.
“Our nations had experienced 10 difficult years where our people always felt close but our governments drifted apart,” Pence said. “But over the past year, Mr. President, thanks to your leadership and the actions that you’ve taken have brought us closer together once again. And you have the appreciation of President Trump and the American people.”
Sebastián Hurtado is president of Prófitas, a political consulting firm in Quito.
“I think the president has never been comfortable with Assange in the embassy,” he said. “And it’s not like this is an important issue for most Ecuadorans. To be honest, we really don’t care about Assange.”
The Moreno administration had made no secret of its desire to unload the issue. In December 2017, it granted Ecuadoran citizenship to Australian-born Assange and then petitioned Britain to allow him diplomatic immunity. The British government refused, saying the way to resolve the stalemate was for Assange to “face justice.”
Another hint that Assange was wearing out his welcome came in March 2018, when Ecuador cut off his Internet access, saying he had breached an agreement not to interfere in the affairs of other states. The embassy did not specify what Assange had done, but the move came after he tweeted criticism of Britain’s assessment that Russia was responsible for the poisoning of a Russian former double agent and his daughter in the city of Salisbury.
Ecuador imposed tighter house rules last fall. Among the demands were that Assange pay for his medical and phone bills and clean up after his cat.
Nakashima reported from Washington and Adam from London.