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Explained: Julian Assange extradition order and charges against the Wikileaks founder

Assange has been wanted by the US since 2010 when WikiLeaks released nearly 4,00,000 documents called the Iraq War Logs from the US Department of Defense databases

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange supporters hold placards as they gather outside Westminster Magistrates court In London on Wednesday. (Photo: AP)

A London court on Wednesday ordered the extradition of the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the United States, the latest but not the last step in a long-running battle in British courtrooms. The order to extradite Assange, who is being sought by the US in connection with charges under the Espionage Act, must be signed by the British home secretary, Priti Patel. Assange has four weeks to appeal to her directly, and he also has the right to take his case to the English High Court after she issues her decision.

We take a look back at what the case is against the WikiLeaks founder and why has the trial dragged on for so long.

Why is Assange wanted in the US?

On April 5, 2010, a 39-minute video was released by a website called wikileaks.org that showed gun-sight footage of two US AH-64 Apache helicopters in action during the Iraqi insurgency against the US occupation in 2007. The video showed the helicopter crew firing indiscriminately and killing civilians and two Reuters war correspondents. For nearly three years, Reuters had sought access to this video that would have shed light on the killing of its correspondents, via the US Freedom of Information Act but had failed.

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Assange has been wanted by the US since 2010 when WikiLeaks released nearly 4,00,000 documents called the Iraq War Logs from the US Department of Defense databases by the intelligence analyst Bradley Manning (who later referred to herself as Chelsea), who acted as a whistle-blower. Manning had copied these files into a CD-ROM and uploaded them onto a WikiLeaks dropbox.

WikiLeaks promptly released the war logs that were published by a host of media organisations and exposed human rights abuses by occupation forces besides the increased fatality counts in Iraq. Later, WikiLeaks also published then presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s aide John Podesta’s emails before the 2016 presidential elections. While the WikiLeaks portal was maintained and sustained by hundreds of volunteers, the site was represented publicly by its founder and director Julian Assange. In December 2018, the website also published a searchable database of more than 16,000 procurement requests that were made by US embassies around the world.

The WikiLeaks model — using cryptographic tools to protect sources and allowing for anonymous “leaks” of sensitive information (that could also be in public interest) to be published — suddenly brought forth a new model of extensive investigative journalism into areas that were relatively kept in the dark from the public eye.

What were the charges brought against him?

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The Barack Obama administration started investigation of the Manning leaks, and Manning was convicted by court martial in July 2013 for violating the Espionage Act and underwent rigorous imprisonment before her sentence was commuted in January 2017. However, the administration had decided that it would not pursue criminal charges against Assange and WikiLeaks.

Things changed under former President Donald Trump as he charged Assange of collaborating in a conspiracy with Manning to crack the password of a Defence Department network to publish classified documents and communications on WikiLeaks in a sealed indictment in April 2017. These charges were unsealed in 2019.

Later, the Trump administration further charged Assange with violating the Espionage Act of 1917 and he was indicted on 17 new charges related to the Act at the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. These charges carry a maximum sentence of 170 years in prison.

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The trial in the UK

Assange waged a prolonged legal battle against his extradition following his arrest in London in 2019, after he spent seven years holed up inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in an effort to avoid detention. After then Ecuador President Lenin Moreno revoked his asylum and his citizenship on April 11, 2019, following Assange’s disputes with Ecuador authorities, he underwent imprisonment for 50 weeks for bail violations during his refuge at the Ecuador Embassy in London.

A district judge, Vanessa Baraitser, ruled in January 2021 that he could not be extradited to the US because of concerns about his mental health and the possibility of suicide in a US prison with stringent incarceration conditions. However, bail was denied to Assange as he was assessed as a flight risk and US prosecutors were allowed an appeal which they filed on January 15, 2021.

On December 10, 2021, the High Court ruled in favour of the US following the Joe Biden administration’s assurances on the terms of Assange’s possible incarceration — that it would not hold him at the highest security prison facility and that if he were convicted, he could serve his sentence in his native Australia if he requested it.

Assange appealed against the verdict in the British Supreme Court, but on March 14, the Court refused permission to appeal. Finally, a London court this week ordered the extradition.

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First published on: 24-04-2022 at 11:53 IST
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