WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was arrested by British authorities on Thursday after Ecuador ended his asylum, prior to which he had resided at their embassy in London for six years. According to the Washington Post, the London Metropolitan Police released a statement explaining that Assange was “arrested on behalf of the United States authorities” and is set to “appear in custody at Westminster Magistrates’ Court as soon as possible.”
British Home Office said that in the U.S., Assange has been “accused … of computer-related offenses.” Indeed, “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,” as per WaPo. A number of figures and organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have stated that the charges set an alarming precedent regarding free speech and journalism, but more on that later.
Assange had lived at the Ecuadorian embassy in London ever since he failed to appear after being bailed out amidst a Swedish rape investigation in 2012. British officials originally sought to arrest him for jumping bail, and he still faces a possible year in jail in the U.K. for the charge. Though the probe into the rape case was discontinued in 2017, Swedish authorities maintained that their decision did not indicate his innocence or guilt.
Assange’s lawyer, Jen Robinson, said the WikiLeaks founder was told Thursday by the Ecuadorian ambassador that his asylum was being rescinded, and then the Metropolitan Police were invited in and took him into custody. Ecuador revoked his asylum due to Assange breaking the terms of his asylum—especially as they pertain to his involvement in the affairs of other countries, including leaked documents about the Vatican—as well as his “discourteous and aggressive behavior.” Their time together had certainly passed the honeymoon phase, as he was asked to clean up after his cat, and pay his medical and phone expenses last autumn.
Ecuadoran President Lenín Moreno has also been trying to cozy up to the U.S. more, a possible indication of why Assange’s asylum was terminated. Moreno stated that Assange’s connection to the January 2019 leak of Vatican documents by WikiLeaks was a contributing factor:
Key members of that organization visited Mr. Assange before and after such illegal acts. 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.
As for the charges Assange is facing from the U.S., the unsealed indictment alleges that he conspired with U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning and others in 2010 to publish confidential documents collected by Manning. WaPo explains:
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.
Robinson confirmed the charges on Twitter:
This indictment has provoked ire from free speech advocates, while British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt praised the arrest of Assange:
ACLU’s Ben Wizner, director of their Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, condemned Assange’s arrest, stating:
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.
During the Obama era, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. did not seek to prosecute Assange because of the unsettling precedent it would set in terms of the First Amendment, as WikiLeaks claims to be a journalistic organization. However, we live in the time of Trump now. As slimy as Assange is (he literally helped get Trump elected by leaking DNC emails), his arrest is a disarming step towards silencing whistle-blowers.