22:30 GMT23 February 2020
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    MOSCOW (Sputnik), Anna Saakyan - The seven-year-long legal standoff of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange against extradition to the United States took an unexpected turn as he went on a notorious journey from asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy to a high-security prison in London, facing the potential of spending the rest of his life behind bars.

    In 2010, WikiLeaks released the largest leak of classified information in history. The website, designed for anonymous whistleblowers to give away classified documents, published more than 700,000 files and diplomatic cables that exposed the atrocities committed by US troops during military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The United States has claimed that Assange obtained the documents by conspiring with former US army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to hack a classified government computer — an allegation Assange has denied.

    The WikiLeaks founder had hoped to avoid prosecution by residing in Sweden, but Stockholm itself confronted him with charges on two alleged cases of sexual assault. Assange again denied the allegations, claiming that they were only a pretext for US extradition. In November 2010, Sweden issued an international arrest warrant.

    In December of that year, Assange turned himself in to police in the United Kingdom — he was first arrested and then promptly released on a 240,000-pound bail ($314,335 at current exchange rates) pending the court decision on Sweden's extradition request. When the journalist exhausted all legal avenues for avoiding extradition, he breached his bail and requested asylum from Ecuador. In June 2012, he entered the Ecuadorian embassy in London disguised as a delivery man. The Ecuadorian president at the time, Rafael Correa, welcomed him to stay for as long as he needed.

    HARBINGERS OF THE STORM

    Assange’s asylum at the embassy was approaching its seventh year when, on 10 January, he was advised to surrender to the UK police by Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Jose Valencia, who said that it was the more preferred option for the jaded journalist than staying at the embassy indefinitely.

    A general view of the Ecuadorian Embassy where Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has been holed out since 2012, in London, Friday, April 5, 2019
    © AP Photo / Alastair Grant
    A general view of the Ecuadorian Embassy where Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has been holed out since 2012, in London, Friday, April 5, 2019

    By that point, Assange had already been living under a set of strict house rules for about a year. On top of the limitations on who could visit him and when, he was told to pay for his food and maintenance, to clean his bathroom and take better care of his cat, otherwise he’d lose the pet. Most importantly, though, the embassy told him to avoid politics-related comments on the Internet. This latter rule was what Ecuador would later cite as a reason to suspend Assange’s asylum.

    In the meantime, media began speculating that the new Ecuadorian president, Lenin Moreno, had struck a deal with the US to hand over Assange in exchange for debt relief. Elected in 2017, Moreno had never demonstrated particular enthusiasm about covering Assange, but this antagonism became openly vocal after his own private photos and documents were leaked in February, sucking him into a massive corruption case, known in Ecuador as the INA Papers scandal.

    It cost Moreno a humiliating official investigation into allegations that his family used offshore companies, primarily the INA Investments Corp., to whitewash generous spendings on luxury real estate and a lavish lifestyle while he was an international civil servant at the United Nations. It is noteworthy that a different website, rather than WikiLeaks, actually published the leaks.

    On 2 April, Moreno said that Assange had no right to hack private phones and intervene in countries' political affairs, yet did not accuse him directly. Two days later, WikiLeaks cited a leak from a high-level Ecuadorian official about the embassy preparing to expel Assange "within hours to days" using the INA Papers scandal as a pretext.

    These were some of the signs that Assange’s lawyers said helped them predict the forthcoming arrest.

    EXPULSION FROM EMBASSY, ARREST

    On the morning of 11 April, the UK police entered the Ecuadorian embassy and arrested Assange. Only after that did Moreno announce that the journalist’s asylum had been withdrawn because of "repeated violations to international conventions and daily-life protocols."

    Video footage by Ruptly — the only one from the scene — shows law enforcement dragging a dishevelled and resisting Assange out of the embassy and forcing him into a police van as he shouts "The UK must resist."

    When confirming the arrest, WikiLeaks claimed that it had been carried out on Washington’s demand.

    The police took Assange to a central London station, where he was further detained pending a court hearing. Moreno, in the meantime, made another statement claiming that he had received written assurances from the UK that Assange would not be extradited to a country where he might face torture or the death penalty.

    WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is seen as he leaves a police station in London, Britain April 11, 2019
    © REUTERS / Peter Nicholls
    WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is seen as he leaves a police station in London, Britain April 11, 2019

    In a matter of hours, the US Department of Justice said in a statement that, if extradited, Assange would face a maximum of five years in prison on charges of "conspiracy to commit computer intrusion for agreeing to crack a password to a classified U.S. government computer."

    While Australia, of which Assange is a native, pledged to continue his consular support as the story was unfolding, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said that the matter of extradition was between the UK and the US, and that the whistleblower would not be receiving any special treatment.

    FROM EMBASSY ROOM TO PRISON CELL

    The Magistrates’ Court, where Assange was taken after the arrest, was rather prompt with its verdict — Assange was found guilty for breaching the Bail Act of 1976, and the US was requested to present all extradition-related documents to the court by 12 June.

    On 1 May, the court sentenced Assange to 50 weeks behind bars for breaching bail to be served in the Belmarsh high-security prison. Before the hearing, Assange's lawyer, Mark Summers, delivered a letter from him to Judge Deborah Taylor in which the whistleblower "apologised unreservedly" to those who considered themselves disrespected by his actions. He wrote that he "did what he thought at the time was best."

    WikiLeaks Editor-in-Chief Kristinn Hrafnsson, who was Assange's first social visitor while in prison, said that the conditions in which he was kept were "worse than for terrorists." He said that he was held in solitary confinement and only allowed to walk outside of his cell for 30 minutes a day. Assange’s lawyers opined that London was doing everything to prevent him from adequately preparing his defence.

    Under UK law, the detainee has to appear before the court every 28 days. For most of the hearings, Assange was not even taken to the court, but rather spoke via a video call from his cell. On 4 November, the hearing lasted a mere four minutes, during which the journalist only confirmed his name and date of birth, and did not give any testimony.

    UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer, who visited Assange in June with two medical experts to perform an independent health evaluation, said that the journalist had displayed "all the symptoms typical for prolonged exposure to psychological torture."

    SWEDEN REOPENS AND DROPS INVESTIGATION

    Assange's second week in the prison was wrapping up when Sweden announced that the preliminary investigation into his rape allegations would be reopened.

    In Sweden, Assange was initially confronted with allegations of molestation and unlawful coercion by one woman and of rape by another. The first case was discontinued in 2015 as the statute of limitations expired. The second was suspended in 2017 after the chief prosecutor said that the case could not proceed without Assange’s presence but might be reopened once he "made himself available." As news about the fugitive’s arrest reached Sweden, the Swedish prosecution said on 11 April that it might consider reopening the rape case.

    WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange being taken from court, where he appeared on charges of jumping British bail seven years ago
    © AP Photo / Matt Dunham
    WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange being taken from court, where he appeared on charges of jumping British bail seven years ago

    On 13 May, Swedish Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions Eva-Marie Persson said that the case would be resumed in Assange’s absence and a European Arrest Warrant issued. She added that should a conflict arise between the Swedish arrest warrant and the US extradition request, Stockholm would leave it up to London to decide to which country Assange would be extradited.

    To many, this decision seemed as if Stockholm was giving Washington a shoulder in facilitating Assange’s extradition for its final destination to be in the US. Therefore, it was surprising when in June, a Swedish court practically waived the extradition request by ruling that Assange’s presence was not required to carry out the trial.

    In November, Sweden abruptly announced that it would be dropping the investigation against Assange altogether.

    "The reason for this decision is that the evidence has weakened considerably due to the long period of time that has elapsed since the events in question," the Swedish Prosecution Authority said in a statement.

    Now, the concern was only regarding the US' extradition request over charges punishable by five years in prison. Or was it?

    US UPS SENTENCE FROM 5 TO 175 YEARS

    According to UK legislation, any extradition request must be filed within 60 days of an arrest and the detainee, when extradited, can only be prosecuted on charges outlined in that request. Per the London court's decision, the US had until 12 June to submit all extradition-related materials.

    Since November 2018, WikiLeaks has several times voiced concerns that the US government could be secretly filing charges against Assange beyond the previously declared 5-year sentence, as his was mentioned in a filing in an unrelated case in "an apparent cut-and-paste-error." Former CIA case officer Philip Giraldi said that once the US authorities have Assange in custody, they will charge him under the 1917 US Espionage Act.

    It was not until this May that these concerns were proved correct. On 23 May, the US Department of Justice indicted Assange on 17 additional charges under the Espionage Act punishable by 10 years each. Together with the initial count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion, it brought the total potential sentence to 175 years.

    J. Assange in Prison Belmarsh in London
    © Ruptly . Ruptly
    J. Assange in Prison Belmarsh in London

    The US Espionage Act makes it a crime to convey information that would interfere with the fighting capability of the US Armed Forces during a war or promote the success of the US' enemies. According to section 704 of the act, delivering defence intelligence to aid a foreign government is potentially punishable by death.

    Under UK law in line with Articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, a person cannot be extradited to jurisdictions in which they could be subjected to torture or death.

    The official extradition request that the US Department of Justice filed with London in June included the complete 18-count set of charges. On 12 June, UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid said that he had approved the US' extradition request, meaning that court hearings could begin, as he believed that Assange would not face torture or death if extradited.

    Yet, it is a common concern among human rights activists, international organisations, and the journalist community that Assange’s extradition will most certainly lead to grave violations of his human rights.

    "Such a response could expose him to the real risk of serious violations of his human rights, including his freedom of expression, his right to a fair trial and the prohibition of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment", UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer said in a report in April.

    Simultaneously, several US and international organisations, including the Reporters Without Borders, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, and the American Civil Liberties Union, voiced concerns that Assange’s case might set a dangerous precedent for other journalists and freedom of the press in general.

    REACTIONS

    "It is an attack on the journalistic profession. How much of a precedent it [becomes] will depend on the public reaction," according to political philosopher Noam Chomsky.

    In just the first two days following Assange’s arrest, more than 40,000 people signed a petition that called upon the UK government to refrain from extraditing him to the US.

    "The UK public and media must hold their government accountable for the human rights violations that are currently happening on their own soil", Christine Dopf, spokesperson for the Unity4J campaign, said.

    Addressing the UK House of Commons on the day of Assange's arrest, the UK prime minister at the time, Theresa May, said that she was "sure that the whole House will welcome the news." Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, in turn, said that the UK government should prevent Assange’s extradition.

    The European Union cautiously refrained from commenting on the journalist’s arrest too early, with Chief Spokesman for the European Commission Margaritis Schinas saying that Brussels does not generally comment on unfolding events. At the same time, the reaction was more decisive in individual European countries.

    The leader of Spanish left-wing party Unidas Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, called for Assange's immediate release.

    "Exploitation, injustice and privileges for the strong are possible only because they are based on lies. Therefore, if authorities — in Spain and in the world — are afraid of anything, then this is true. Freedom for Julian Assange", Iglesias wrote on Twitter.

    Leader of French leftist party France Unbowed and former presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon urged the government to grant Assange asylum.

    "The founder of the WikiLeaks website is really being persecuted by the US government for exposing the mass espionage that was conducted against other governments of the world, including [US] allies. Julian Assange acted in the name of freedom and independence of France, revealing aggressive actions against us. It should be an honor for our country to grant him political asylum at a time when his freedom is under threat", Melenchon said in a statement.

    In Germany, Bundestag lawmakers Sevim Dagdelen and Heike Haensel, as well as a member of the European Parliament, Ana Miranda, issued a joint statement in which they urged the UK and EU authorities to prevent Assange’s extradition to the United States.

    In the meantime, controversy sparked on the other side of the Atlantic as the media grilled Trump for contradicting himself — during the 2016 presidential campaign, he had said that he "loved WikiLeaks" and in April of this year after Assange's arrest, he said he "knew nothing about WikiLeaks." Vice President Mike Pence decorated the situation by claiming that the president "always welcomes information" and that his statement "was in no way an endorsement of an organisation that we now understand was involved in disseminating classified information by the United States of America." Meanwhile, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said that Trump was "making a joke."

    In May, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer called the actions of the United States, the United Kingdom, Ecuador and Sweden a "concentrated campaign" of defamation and abuse against Assange and said that it was unacceptable for democratic countries to "gang up" against a single investigative journalist.

    When addressing the Special Rapporteur's report, political philosopher Noam Chomsky said that very few people in the UK and the US knew about "Britain’s shocking behaviour," and it was primarily due to what he called "the treachery of the media, which are not exposing the crimes as they should be."

    Later in June, Melzer also voiced concerns about Western media failing to provide objective coverage of Assange’s prosecution, as opposed to Russian media, which united efforts in ensuring maximum publicity and transparency to their coverage of the controversial arrest of Russian investigative journalist Ivan Golunov in Moscow earlier this year.

    Russia condemned the expulsion of Assange from the Ecuadorian embassy, with Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova calling it an act of "freedom choking on ‘democracy.’" The Kremlin deemed it "absolutely non-compliant with the ideals of press freedom, media freedom and media immunity" and expressed hope that Assange’s rights would be respected during the trial.

    Fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden, who himself found refuge and protection from extradition in Russia, has called it a "dark moment for press freedom" and said that "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 history books."

    The Russian embassy in the United Kingdom has confirmed that it did not receive an asylum request from Assange.

    It is now up to the UK court to decide whether the whistleblower will be extradited. The grand hearing is expected to be held in February of 2020. The trial will last for five days and will be preceded by several technical hearings.

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    extradition, Wikileaks, Julian Assange
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