The arrest and threatened extradition of Julian Assange

On Thursday 11 April 2019, Wikileaks founder and editor-in-chief Julian Assange was arrested by British police after the Ecuadorian embassy withdrew Assange’s asylum. Assange is currently facing two charges – one concerns failing to surrender to the British courts in 2012. The other charge is at the behest of the United States government, which is seeking to extradite him in relation to an alleged conspiracy between Assange and Chelsea Manning over the leaking of secret documents in 2010.

NSW Council for Civil Liberties President, Pauline Wright, said “No matter what our personal views of Julian Assange may be, there are important matters of principle at stake that go beyond the personalities involved. We must condemn the decision of the United States to seek the extradition and prosecution of a non-citizen who published truthful information about US war crimes. This has clear implications for the protection of whistle-blowers into the future and the independence of the press.” She said “What is to stop more authoritarian regimes claiming a similar right to prosecute Australians in the future, including journalists exposing war crimes or corruption? The Australian government should urge the United Kingdom to block Assange’s extradition to the United States.”

The bail issue relates to allegations of sexual assault in Sweden. Swedish authorities tried to extradite Assange so that their investigation of the allegations could proceed. In 2012, Assange’s last appeal to the United Kingdom Supreme Court against this extradition request failed, so Assange entered the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Ecuador granted Assange asylum, due to concerns that he would be extradited from Sweden to the US. Ecuador offered to send Assange to Sweden, if assurances were given that he would not be extradited to the US, but Sweden would not give them. Consequently, Assange stayed in the Embassy for 2487 days, due to the belief he would be arrested and extradited to the US if he left the Embassy. Assange faces 12 months imprisonment for the offence of failing to surrender to the court in 2012.

The allegation by the US Department of Justice is that in 2010 Assange engaged in a conspiracy with Chelsea Manning to crack a password, which “would have made it more difficult for investigators to determine the source of the illegal disclosures.” Assange also allegedly encouraged Manning to provide more information, after Manning sent classified records to Assange. The maximum penalty for this offence is five years in prison. The allegations were investigated by the Obama Department of Justice, which decided against prosecution. This was on the basis, as reported in the Washington Post, that “there is no way to prosecute him for publishing information without the same theory being applied to journalists.”

This underlines that any prosecution of Assange poses a threat to other journalists who encourage sources to leak information, and then help them protect their anonymity. No doubt the US decision as to the charges laid takes into account the constitutional protection for freedom of speech in the USA, but this right is not protected sufficiently in Australia where we have no bill of rights.

The Trump Administration has taken a different view, arguing that they could not “allow Assange and his colleagues the latitude to use free speech values against us.” There have been reports since the election of Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno two years ago of pressure to turn over Assange. In 2018, Ecuador blocked Assange from accessing the internet. Glenn Greenwald reported that Ecuador was seeking concessions to turn him over. In March, Ecuador signed a $4.2 billion agreement with the International Monetary Fund. Moreno has accused Assange of misbehaviour, including riding a skateboard and playing football in the embassy. Wikileaks has linked his decision to them exposing the Ina Papers, an “offshore corruption scandal wracking his government.”

Wikileaks has exposed a litany of international stories, including a video showing American soldiers killing Iraqi civilians. Wikileaks has won numerous awards, including a Walkley for Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism. The Australian government has not indicated any concerns about the current proceedings against Assange. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that Assange won’t receive “special treatment”, and would have to “make his way through the justice system”. Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne said “Mr Assange will continue to receive the usual consular support from the Australian government” and she was “confident that Mr Assange will receive due process in the legal proceedings he faces in the United Kingdom”. She said she “will not provide ongoing comment.”

Michael Brull

Policy Lawyer