A Quick Primer On Julian Assange If You’ve Got No Idea What’s Going On
If extradited to the US, Assange could be jailed for up to 175 years.
The British government has officially approved the extradition of Australian WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the US after a years-long legal battle.
— Content Warning: This article discusses sexual assault. —
Assange has been a household name for more than a decade now, but if you weren’t politically engaged back in 2010 — or haven’t been keeping up with the story for the past 12 years, you may not know the full story. So let’s unpack exactly who Julian Assange is, what is going on right now, and what it means for press freedom more broadly.
Who Is Assange, What Is WikiLeaks, And What Did He Do?
Julian Assange is an Australian political journalist, editor and whistleblower, most famous for founding WikiLeaks way back in 2006.
WikiLeaks, however, didn’t gain mainstream global attention until 2010 — when it published more than 91,000 highly classified US military documents about the war in Afghanistan, and then an additional 400,000 classified documents on the Iraq war. The information was leaked to WikiLeaks by former US military personnel Chelsea Manning. This was, by all accounts, the largest leak of classified information in US military history.
He continued to leak classified documents after the initial two leaks — including more than 250,000 more documents later in 2010. Naturally, the US is super upset about this and wants to convict Assange on 18 federal espionage-related charges, which could result in a sentence of up to 175 years in prison.
But while the US government thinks Assange violated the espionage act, his supporters — including Sarah Palin, Jeremy Corbyn, Pamela Anderson and Edward Snowden — claim he simply exposed alleged abuses of power and war crimes by the US government and that the entire case against Assange is a giant abuse of the freedom of the press.
Is The Espionage Act A Threat To Press Freedom?
At its core, the Espionage Act is designed to prevent military and government personnel from accessing classified information and giving it to foreign governments, who can then use the information against the US. Basically, it’s designed to stop foreign spies.
However, the Espionage Act does not allow for any sort of public interest defence, which means — in the eyes of the law — a jury can’t differentiate between a spy selling classified documents to a foreign government, and a whistle-blower exposing war crimes to the press. Obviously, these are two wildly different things.
The part that is contested here is whether or not Assange, who published content but didn’t really exercise any journalistic principles, is considered the “press”, or if it is more a question of freedom of speech. But regardless of whether or not you think Assange practiced journalism with WikiLeaks, this case has the possibility to have some major impacts on press freedom in the US.
What About The Rape Charge?
In addition to the espionage charges in the US, Assange is also the subject of two separate sexual assault allegations dating back to 2010, which allegedly took place during a visit to Sweden.
This allegedly took place after the first two major WikiLeaks drops, but before the third. Assange has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and claimed the encounters with both women were consensual.
In November 2010, a warrant for Assange’s arrest was issued on the charges of rape, unlawful coercion and three cases of sexual molestation. However, the warrant was later lowered to rape to a lesser degree, unlawful coercion and two counts of sexual molestation. But by the time the arrest warrant was issued, Assange was already living in the UK, which would require him to be extradited for trial. He argued that Swedish prosecutors should interview him in London, but ultimately feared that being extradited to Sweden would result in him being eventually sent to the US — where he could be jailed for 175 years.
Ultimately, the three less severe charges were dropped in 2015 after the statute of limitations had run out, before the entire investigation was dropped as of November 2019.
This part has no real connection to the situation in the US, but plays a significant part in his decision to seek political asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy and is an extremely serious allegation.
Seeking Political Asylum At The Ecuadorian Embassy
In 2012, Assange — disguised as a motorcycle courier — entered the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he could no longer be detained by UK police and extradited to either the US or Sweden. Once he entered the embassy, he stayed there for seven years.
He was officially granted political asylum two months later by then-president Rafael Correa. The UK government argued that British police were entitled to enter the building to arrest Assange under UK law, but Ecuador took this as a threat and ultimately the UK — instead — decided to position police permanently outside on the off chance Assange ever tried to leave.
During his time in the Ecuadorian Embassy, Assange continued to work on WikiLeaks and released hundreds of thousands more documents, including a number of emails involving Hillary Clinton that are accused of playing a role in Trump’s 2016 election.
After seven years of protecting Assange at a cost of almost $1.4 million annually, Ecuador eventually withdrew his protection and handed him over to British police in April 2019 after a bitter end to their relationship.
“We’ve ended the asylum of this spoiled brat,” President Lenin Moreno said at the time, amid allegations of physical harassment and other questionable behaviour from Assange. “From now on we’ll be more careful in giving asylum to people who are really worth it, and not miserable hackers whose only goal is to destabilise governments.”
Assange was immediately arrested, charged and convicted of breaching the Bail Act. He has remained in incarceration at Her Majesty’s Prison Belmarsh since April 11, 2019.
Assange has since accused Ecuador of violating his “fundamental rights and freedoms.”
The threat of extradition has been ongoing since 2010, but came to a head on April 20 this year, when the UK formally approved Assange’s extradition to the US. We’ll skip the back and forth but basically between 2019 and 2022, the possibility of extradition just bounced between the courts.
British Home Secretary Priti Patel green-lit the extradition over the weekend, confirming that the courts had “not found that it would be oppressive, unjust or an abuse of process to extradite Mr Assange”.
“Nor have they found that extradition would be incompatible with his human rights, including his right to a fair trial and to freedom of expression, and that whilst in the US he will be treated appropriately, including in relation to his health,” a Home Office spokesperson said.
Assange’s lawyers will attempt to appeal the decision. If his appeal is rejected, or doesn’t make it to court, there will be no more obstacles preventing Assange from being extradited. This could happen as early as July.
What Can, And Will, Australia Do?
With charges in the US and Sweden, an arrest in the UK and seeking asylum in Ecuador, it’s easy to forget in all of this that Assange is an Australian. But what exactly are we doing, and what duty do we have to protect Assange in all of this?
Friends and family of Assange are calling on Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to step in and do something to protect him. And a number of Labor MPs have publicly supported the Free Assange movement.
Before the election, Albanese was pretty clearly against Assange’s incarceration.
“Well, I’ve said for some time that enough is enough. The fact is that you have the circumstances whereby the person who has actually leaked the classified information to WikiLeaks is free, is walking around, isn’t incarcerated. But the person who published that information remains in jail in Britain awaiting the extradition procedures that the United States is taking place,” Albanese told ABC Radio in December.
On Monday, he stressed that he stands by his initial comments — but interestingly, did not repeat them. However, he was quick to call out Twitter activists for their role in the situation.
“I’ll make this point as well. There are some people who think that if you put things in capital letters on Twitter and put an exclamation mark that somehow makes it more important. It doesn’t,” he said.
Albanese has indicated that the government will pursue the matter in private with the US and the UK.
As for what exactly can be done, that’s where it gets complicated. There’s no real legal course for Australia to just bring Assange home and forget this ever happened, so the only real option is to politically fight for it. This could mean encouraging the US to drop the charges, or urging President Biden to issue a political pardon for Assange.
As for what will actually happen, only time will tell, but the case stands to be one of the most important cases of freedom of speech/press in recent history, and if Assange gets extradited, it will be one to watch.
Lavender Baj is Junkee’s senior reporter focusing on news and politics. Follow her on Twitter.