WikiLeaks founder on Interpol wanted list


WIKILEAKS FOUNDER Julian Assange is facing growing legal problems around the world, with the US announcing that it was investigating whether he had violated its espionage laws.

Mr Assange’s details were also added to Interpol’s worldwide wanted list. Dated November 30th, the entry cites “sex crimes” and says the warrant has been issued by the international public prosecution office in Gothenburg, Sweden.

It reads: “Wanted: Assange, Julian Paul,” and gives his birthplace as Townsville, Australia. “If you have any information contact your national or local police,” it says.

Friends said earlier that Mr Assange was in a buoyant mood, despite the palpable fury emanating from Washington over the decision by WikiLeaks to start publishing more than a quarter of a million mainly classified US cables.

He was said to be at a secret location somewhere outside London, along with fellow hackers and WikiLeaks enthusiasts.

Mr Assange’s reluctance to emerge in public is understandable. It comes amid a rapid narrowing of his options. Several countries are currently either taking – or actively considering – legal moves against him. This lengthening list includes Sweden, Australia and now the US but, so far as can be made out, not Britain.

US attorney general Eric Holder has announced that the justice department and Pentagon are conducting “an active, ongoing criminal investigation” into the latest leaks under Washington’s Espionage Act. It was not immediately clear whether Mr Holder was referring to Bradley Manning, the dissident US soldier suspected of being the original source of the leak, or Mr Assange.

The inquiry by US federal authorities is made tricky by Mr Assange’s Australian citizenship and the antediluvian nature of the law’s pre-internet-era 1917 statutes.

According to the Washington Post, no charges against anyone from WikiLeaks are imminent.

Asked how the US could prosecute Mr Assange, a non-US citizen, Mr Holder struck an ominous note. “Let me be clear, this is not sabre-rattling,” he said, vowing to swiftly “close the gaps” in current US legislation.

Mr Assange’s most pressing headache though is Sweden. Swedish prosecutors have issued an international and European arrest warrant for him in connection with rape allegations; the warrant has been upheld by a Swedish appeal court.

Mr Assange strongly denies any wrongdoing but admits having unprotected but consensual encounters with two women during a visit to Sweden in August.

Mark Stephens, his London-based lawyer, has described the allegations as “false and without basis”, adding that they amount to persecution as part of a cynical smear campaign.

Nonetheless, the Swedes appear determined to force Mr Assange back to Sweden for questioning.

Stockholm’s director of public prosecutions, Marianne Ny, said last month: “So far, we have not been able to meet with him to accomplish the interrogation.”

Mr Assange contests this too, but if he declines to return to Sweden voluntarily, and if the UK decides to enforce Sweden’s arrest warrant, things may get tricky.

Some friends believe Mr Assange’s best strategy is not to go to ground but to get on a plane to Sweden and face down his accusers.

Mr Stephens, moreover, says that the Swedish attempts to extradite Mr Assange have no legal force. So far he has not been charged, Mr Stephens says – an essential precondition for a valid European arrest warrant.

Under the European arrest warrant scheme, which allows for fast-tracked extradition between EU member states, a warrant must indicate a formal charge in order to be validated and must be served on the person accused.

Mr Assange’s legal team is challenging the warrant in Sweden’s supreme court. It is optimistic: a previous appeal was partially successful in limiting the grounds on which the warrant was issued.

Mr Assange has previously suggested he might find sanctuary in Switzerland. More promising perhaps is Ecuador, whose leftist government unexpectedly offered him asylum on Monday. “We are ready to give him residence in Ecuador, with no problems and no conditions,” Ecuador’s foreign minister Kintto Lucas said.

At the very least, Ecuador could offer Mr Assange a new passport. He might need one. Australia’s attorney general Robert McClelland said Australian police were also investigating whether any Australian laws had been broken by the latest WikiLeaks release.

Yet Mr Assange’s predicament may not be as hopeless as it seems. The US would be hard pressed to make charges against him stick, experts suggest.

“There have been so few cases under the espionage act, you can put them on one hand,” said David Banisar, senior legal counsel for the campaigning group Article 19 and an expert on free speech in the US.

“There is the practical problem that most of the information published by WikiLeaks wasn’t secret.

“Then there is the debate about whether the documents were properly classified – there are detailed rules in the US about what can and cannot be classified.” – (Guardian service)