explainer

What did Julian Assange do? The full, horrific story.

Australian WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was arrested on April 11, hauled out of London’s Ecuadorian embassy where he’d been holed up since June 2012. Within hours, he was in front of a judge, declared guilty and was remanded in custody to await sentencing.

But Assange’s arrest and conviction had nothing to with what made him so notorious, so divisive, ie. publishing thousands of classified US Government documents via WikiLeaks. Instead, the 47-year-old found himself in the docks for skipping bail back in 2012. He’d failed to surrender to British police, while wanted for questioning on sexual assault charges.

On Thursday, the WikiLeak’s founder was sentenced to 50 weeks in prison for the 2012 crime. Judge Deborah Taylor said that Assange merited near the maximum sentence of one year because of the seriousness of his offence. She rejected his claim for leniency based on the nearly seven years he spent in the Ecuadorian Embassy.

As his sentence was read, Assange stood impassively with his hands clasped. His supporters in the public gallery chanted “Shame on you” at the judge as Assange was led away.

It was the original charges in 2012, levelled against Assange by two Swedish women, that sent him fleeing into the shelter of the embassy in the first place.

But why did he need to hide? What about the hacking charges? And why did Ecuador suddenly turn its back on him?

What was Julian Assange accused of?

In August 2010, authorities in Gothenburg, Sweden, issued an arrest warrant for Julian Assange after two women, identified only as AA and SW, came forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against him. Police were seeking to question the Australian over claims he raped one of the women and coerced and sexually molested the other while in Stockholm for a conference earlier that month.

The warrant detailed four alleged offences, including that he had “unprotected sexual intercourse with [AA] without her knowledge” and “deliberately consummated sexual intercourse with [SW] by improperly exploiting that she, due to sleep, was in a helpless state.”

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Assange, who fled to the UK before he could be arrested, has firmly denied the allegations.

But fighting the charges in a Swedish court wasn’t something he was prepared to risk… because he believed that the Swedes would hand him over to the United States. In fact, he openly alleged via WikiLeaks that the sexual assault case was a setup engineered by the US Government to silence his organisation.

What did Julian Assange do that made him wanted by the United States?

The exact charges against Assange have not been clear until after Thursday’s arrest, when the Department of Justice released a statement detailing his alleged offences. It revealed that he stands accused of a federal charge of conspiracy for  helping former intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning crack a password that would enable her to download classified records about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to send to WikiLeaks. Among the hundreds of thousands of files was a damning video (known as ‘Collateral Murder’) showing a US airstrike, in which dozens of unarmed Iraqi civilians and two Reuters employees were killed.

Manning was convicted of leaking the documents in 2013, and served seven years in prison before former President Barack Obama commuted her sentence.

Why did Julian Assange hide in the Ecuadorian embassy?

As Associate Professor of Law Gbenga Oduntan explained via The Conversation, the arrest warrant issued against Assange by Sweden was a European Arrest Warrant, meaning “the UK authorities were required to act. Judges in the UK granted Assange bail at the time of this initial arrest, but with strict conditions.”

While the case was being considered, Assange entered the Ecuadorian embassy in London seeking political asylum. Why Ecuador? Because it is a signatory to the 1951 Convention on Refugees, and therefore is obliged to consider whether someone applying for asylum is at risk of losing their life if they were handed over to another authority. Assange and his lawyers argued that he could face treason charges in the US for his actions at WikiLeaks – charges which could carry the death penalty.

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And so, Assange was granted asylum on June 16, 2012, and confined himself to the embassy building, safe from foreign authorities. Though he delivered several speeches from the balcony and had multiple visitors (including unlikely friend Pamela Anderson) over the years, he could not leave. It was essentially a prison of his own choosing.

Why did Ecuador kick him out of the embassy in early April?

Well, they actually invited British police in, after first revoking Julian Assange’s political asylum status.

After the arrest, Ecuadorian Foreign Minister José Valencia gave an address to his parliament in which he outlined nine reasons for the decision. As well as accusing Assange of “acts of interference in the politics of other states”, Valencia claimed he’d been “riding a skateboard and playing football” inside the embassy, and had mistreated and threatened staff, The Guardian reported.

He also revealed that Ecuador had spent more $5.8m on Assange’s security between 2012 and 2018, and nearly $400,000 on his medical costs, food and laundry.

The relationship between Asssange and Ecuador had soured since Lenín Moreno won the presidency in April 2017. Moreno openly expressed his dislike of Assange, whom he described as an “inherited problem” and a “stone in the shoe”, The Guardian reported. Things got especially heated on Tuesday, when Assange’s legal team gave a press conference in which they accused Moreno’s government of illegally spying on him.

What happens to Julian Assange now?

The Swedish investigation against Assange was ultimately “discontinued” by May 2017; not because authorities no longer suspected him of the alleged crime, but because they conceded it was not likely his “surrender to Sweden could be executed in the foreseeable future”.

But the British charge for skipping bail remained in place, which resulted in the sentencing of 50 weeks on Thursday.

As for the US charge, according to Prof. Oduntan, “Although the British authorities appear to have given some assurances to the Ecuadorean authorities that Assange will not be extradited to the US, they will probably embark on a very truncated extradition process in conjunction with the US authorities and he may soon be in the US.”

If that happens and he’s convicted, he faces up to five years in prison on that charge. Though many suspect more charges could follow.

Meanwhile, one of the Swedish women who accused Assange of sexual assault remains hopeful for her own justice.

“What we have been waiting and hoping for since 2012 has now finally happened,” her lawyer said in a statement to The Guardian. “We are going to do everything we possibly can to get the Swedish police investigation re-opened so that Assange can be extradited to Sweden and prosecuted for rape. No rape victim should have to wait nine years to see justice be served.”

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