It is a week since British police took away Julian Assange from the Ecuadorean embassy in London after the host country revoked his asylum. In the UK, the founder of WikiLeaks has been convicted of jumping bail in 2012. He could end up in prison for a year for that — but he is yet to be sentenced. After the arrest, the US Justice Department unsealed a March 2018 indictment charging Assange with “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion”. And prosecutors in Sweden are considering reopening a probe into allegations of rape.
Supporters hail Assange as a free-speech icon who has invited the wrath of a vengeful US for exposing misdeeds that have embarrassed the superpower. They fear he will be sent to that country to face trial and will probably be punished for his heroism.
Is that what is going to happen?
In the UK, as of now
Britain is where Assange is now, and the ongoing criminal action in that country will come ahead of any demands that the US or Sweden might make for him. That may not be able to protect him from extradition for long, a Reuters report quoted London lawyer and former head of extradition at the Crown Prosecution Service Nick Vamos as saying. “Even if he (Assange) 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. Which means extradition hearings need not wait for his sentence to be over. A British judge has given the US until June 12 to lay out the case against Assange.
The case in Sweden
In 2010, two Swedish women accused Assange of sexual assault and rape. A start-stop-start investigation led to the issue of a European arrest order. Assange, who feared Sweden would give him to the US, was given refuge in Ecuador’s embassy in the UK in 2012 by the leftwing politician who was then President, Rafael Correa. In 2015, the Swedish authorities closed the investigation into accusations of sexual molestation and unlawful coercion after they were time-barred. In May 2017, they dropped the rape probe without filing charges, saying it was unlikely they would get Assange any time soon.
But on April 11, the day Assange was arrested, Swedish prosecutors said the alleged victim’s lawyer had asked for the rape investigation to be reopened. The statute of limitation for rape is 10 years, which means Assange can be prosecuted until August 2020.
Assange has said his sex with the two women was consensual, and that the allegations were motivated.
The case in the US
Assange is accused of conspiring with former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning — then known as Bradley Manning — to access classified information on computers of the US Department of Defense in 2010. In 2013, a court martial convicted Manning of supplying 700,000 documents, videos, diplomatic cables and battlefield accounts to WikiLeaks when she was an intelligence analyst in Iraq. President Barack Obama commuted Manning’s 35-year sentence in 2017, but she was jailed again this March for refusing to testify before a grand jury. Information published by WikiLeaks appeared to establish the killing of hundreds of civilians by the US in unreported incidents. If tried and convicted, Assange faces up to five years in jail.
Where’s he headed?
The extradition process will not be very different from the one through which the cases of Vijay Mallya and Nirav Modi are passing. After extradition requests pass through courts, Home Secretary Sajid Javid will decide which among Sweden and the US to privilege. He will consider the seriousness of the offence, and which request comes first. Also considered in such cases is whether the accused individual faces a risk of execution, or whether the requesting country could add any unspecified charges later.
Vamos, the lawyer, told Reuters that the re-issued Swedish request, which was first made long ago, should get precedence, especially because “there’s a victim there who’s been waiting for justice for many years”, and because the US has taken so long to frame its indictment. More than 70 British parliamentarians — mainly Labour MPs and peers — have written to Javid asking him to “stand with the victims of sexual violence”, and ensure that the charges in Sweden are “properly investigated”. The rape charge lapses in less than a year and a half.
That said, it is helpful to remember that action on extradition requests almost everywhere depend, in general, on the diplomatic clout that one country has with the other.
If a lower court orders his extradition, Assange could appeal to London’s High Court and to the Supreme Court if he can identify a challenge based on a point of law, Reuters reported. Also, every individual in Assange’s situation can claim that extradition would be a violation of their human rights. He could argue that he has been slapped with so much notoreity already, that a fair trial in the US was impossible. “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 told Reuters. “All of those arguments have legs.”