Explainer – Looking for America: Is Julian Assange heading to the United States?

LONDON (Reuters) – British police dragged Julian Assange from the Ecuadorean embassy last Thursday after his asylum was revoked, ending his seven-year stay there and opening the way for his extradition to the United States.

Assange’s supporters, who cast him as a dissident facing the wrath of a superpower, fear the 47-year-old will end up on trial in the United States.

The United States wants Assange for one of the largest compromises of classified information in U.S. history.

What happens now?

WHO IS ASSANGE?

Assange was born on July 3, 1971 in Australia. In his teens, he gained a reputation as a talented computer programmer and in the mid-1990s he was arrested and pleaded guilty to hacking. He founded WikiLeaks in 2006.

He shot to fame in early 2010 when WikiLeaks published a classified U.S. military video showing a 2007 attack by Apache helicopters in Baghdad that killed a dozen people, including two Reuters news staff.

WikiLeaks published hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. diplomatic cables that laid bare often critical U.S. appraisals of world leaders, from Russian President Vladimir Putin to members of the Saudi royal family.

WHY WAS HE IN THE ECUADOREAN EMBASSY?

Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in June 2012 to avoid being extradited to Sweden, where authorities wanted to question him as part of a preliminary sexual assault investigation.

That investigation was later dropped but because he had breached his British bail in 2012, he was arrested last week and found guilty of failing to surrender to Westminster Magistrates’ Court.

Following his arrest, U.S. prosecutors announced charges against him and Swedish prosecutors are considering reopening the rape investigation.

JAIL IN THE UNITED KINGDOM?

Westminster Magistrates’ Court’s Judge Michael Snow said Assange faces up to 12 months in jail when he is sentenced at a later date at Southwark Crown Court.

The British criminal action against Assange will take precedence over extradition proceedings although Nick Vamos, lawyer at London-based firm Peters & Peters and former head of extradition at Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service, said in practice it would make little difference.

    “Even if he gets a maximum 12-month sentence, that means he will serve six and it will take at least six months for his extradition proceedings to be resolved,” Vamos told Reuters.

    So while he is in custody, the extradition hearings can proceed. The British judge gave the U.S. government a deadline of June 12 to outline its case against Assange.

SO DOES ASSANGE END UP IN SWEDEN OR THE UNITED STATES?

The courts will have to rule on any extradition request and Home Secretary Sajid Javid would decide which one takes precedence.

Vamos said the home secretary would take into account the seriousness of the offence and which request was issued first, and expected a Swedish one would take supremacy.

    “Even though technically it would be a re-issued request, in effect it would be just a repeat of the request that was issued many years ago and therefore it would be treated as if it was the earliest one,” he said.

    “The fact that his extradition had already been ordered on it once would be in the home secretary’s mind. The U.S. government can wait a bit longer, they’ve taken quite a long time to sort out whether they were ever going to charge him or not …

“We don’t know what happened in Sweden, we don’t whether he committed that offense and there’s a victim there who’s been waiting for justice for many years and I think that should take priority.”

WHAT IS THE U.S. CASE?

Just hours after Assange’s arrest, U.S. prosecutors announced charges against him for conspiring with former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to gain access to a government computer.

The indictment, filed in March 2018 and unsealed on Thursday, said Assange in March 2010 engaged in a conspiracy to help Manning crack a password stored on Defense Department computers connected to the Secret Internet Protocol Network (SIPRNet), a U.S. government network used for classified documents and communications.

Manning, formerly Bradley Manning, was jailed on March 8 after being held in contempt by a judge in Virginia for refusing to testify before a grand jury in what is widely believed to be related to the Assange investigation.

Manning was convicted by court-martial in 2013 of espionage and other offences for furnishing more than 700,000 documents, videos, diplomatic cables and battlefield accounts to WikiLeaks while she was an intelligence analyst in Iraq. Former President Barack Obama commuted the final 28 years of Manning’s 35-year sentence.

WHAT IS THE SWEDISH INVESTIGATION?

Assange was accused by two Swedish women of sexual assault and rape in 2010. After opening an initial investigation, prosecutors dropped it, only to reopen it and issue an European arrest order for Assange, who had left the country for Britain.

Assange, who denied the allegations, fought through the courts to get an extradition order and the preliminary investigation dropped.

His lawyers said he feared that should he go to Sweden, authorities could hand him over to the United States.

Prosecutors ended the preliminary investigation into allegations of sexual molestation and unlawful coercion in 2015 as the statute of limitations had already passed, but kept open the rape probe.

In May 2017, then chief prosecutor Marianne Ny dropped the preliminary investigation into rape without filing any charges, saying that there was no prospect of Assange being handed over within a reasonable timeframe.

Swedish prosecutors said on April 11 they had received a formal request to reopen the rape investigation from the legal counsel representing the alleged victim.

The request was assigned to Deputy Chief Prosecutor Eva-Marie Persson, who said prosecutors would look into the matter and determine how to proceed.

The statute of limitation for rape is 10 years, a deadline which would be reached in the mid-August next year.

HOW COULD ASSANGE FIGHT EXTRADITION?

    “Everybody can challenge an extradition request on the basis it would be contrary to their human rights for them to be extradited,” Vamos said.

    “So Assange could argue that it would be impossible for him to have a fair trial in the U.S. given what happened to Chelsea Manning, given the notoriety, the publicity about his case that effectively he’s been tried in the media, public statements by U.S. officials (that) it’s impossible for him to have a fair trial.”

    He could also bring up potential conditions he would face in U.S. prisons.

    “He could argue the entire request is politically motivated that he is being prosecuted by reason of his political opinions or his political affiliations, that it’s revenge, it’s vindictive, it’s a vendetta,” Vamos said. “All of those arguments have legs.” 

    Sweden’s original request for Assange’s extradition went to Britain’s Supreme Court which backed the request.

    If a lower court orders his extradition, then he could again appeal the decision to London’s High Court and ultimately again to the Supreme Court if he can identify a challenge based on a point of law.

    For U.S. requests, the courts’ decision has to be ratified by the Home Secretary but Vamos said in effect this was now just a rubber-stamping exercise.

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