Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 20 September 2019

Julian Assange: Why the WikiLeaks founder spent seven years in a London embassy

Mr Assange fears extradition to the United States following a series of high-profile and embarrassing leaks

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is seen with his ankle security tag in 2011. AP 
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is seen with his ankle security tag in 2011. AP 

To his supporters, Julian Assange campaigned for truth spilling government secrets – to his detractors he put the security of states at risk.

The widely different views of Mr Assange are now set to be argued in court after he was hauled unceremoniously on Thursday from the Ecuadorian embassy after a seven-year occupation to avoid arrest and potential extradition to the United States.

The nine-year saga began when Swedish prosecutors issued a warrant for his arrest in 2010 for sexual crimes allegedly committed while on a speaking event to the country. He was arrested in London later that year – marking the start of a legal-tug-of-war over four countries.

Mr Assange – who set up Wikileaks in 2006, protecting anonymous sources with highly encrypted devices - had been backed by a number of prominent celebrities who put up bail money to keep him out of prison pending any criminal case.

They lost a large proportion when Mr Assange entered the London-based embassy in June 2012 and refused to come out after Britain’s Supreme Court ruled that he should be extradited to Sweden over the sexual assault allegations.

Mr Assange was granted political asylum later that year after he secured the support of Ecuador's President Rafael Correa, a friend who had expressed similar views on freedom of expression.

Mr Assange received further backing in 2016 when a UN panel found that he had been “arbitrarily detained”, a decision seized on by supporters of the whistleblower-in-chief.

Sweden dropped its rape inquiry in 2017 because prosecutors were unable to take the case further in the absence of Mr Assange. He, however, remained in the embassy as he was still subject to an outstanding British arrest warrant for avoiding arrest.

Staying in the embassy meant Mr Assange was technically on Ecuadorian territory and British police officers could not go inside to arrest him.

His main fear is the threat of extradition to the US to face charges over the WikiLeaks website's release of sensitive US government files. In July and October 2010, WikiLeaks released documents linked to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which appeared to reveal rights violations by soldiers.

It was followed by hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables covering decades that exposed the US to embarrassment because of their contacts and the security failings that allowed them to be leaked.

The leak led to the jailing of Chelsea Manning, a former US intelligence analyst. She was found guilty of charges in 2013 for leaking secret files to WikiLeaks but the sentence was later commuted.

She was jailed again last month for refusing to testify before a US investigation into WikiLeaks. In November last year, prosecutors inadvertently revealed possible charges against Mr Assange with the publication of documents from a separate case.

Mr Assange’s circumstances worsened after the election in Ecuador of Mr Correa’s successor, Lenin Moreno, who took a much less tolerant attitude towards his country’s guest.

Ecuador last year posed new rules for Mr Assange's behaviour while in the embassy, which required him to pay his medical bills and clean up after his pet cat.

The relationship further frayed after Mr Assange announced in October that he was taking legal action against Ecuador for violating his rights.

In recent days, Ecuador’s foreign ministry described Mr Assange as showing “ingratitude and disrespect” towards the country that has given him protection by circulating rumours that he would be handed over to British authorities.

Ecuador "has made significant expenditures to pay for his stay" and has "endured its rudeness", the ministry said.

The downturn in relations came to a conclusion with his removal from the embassy on Thursday morning.

Updated: April 11, 2019 03:55 PM

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