Julian Assange faces extradition to the United States and up to five years in jail following his arrest at the Ecuadorian embassy in London on Thursday morning. US authorities have indicted the WikiLeaks founder on conspiracy charges relating to one of the biggest ever leaks of government secrets in 2010.
They allege that Mr Assange (47) helped former US army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to crack a password for computers at the Pentagon, enabling her to leak a massive haul of official documents. The leaks, which became known as Cablegate, included 90,000 reports from the Afghanistan war, 400,000 reports from the Iraq War and 250,000 state department cables.
Police carried Mr Assange from the embassy in Knightsbridge where he had lived for seven years, after the Ecuadorian government withdrew his asylum. The Australian-born activist’s hands were secured in front of him as he was dragged into a police van, clutching a copy of Gore Vidal’s History of the National Security State.
“Resist this attempt by the Trump administration. The UK must resist,” he shouted.
Mr Assange appeared at Westminster magistrates' court a few hours later, charged with violating his bail conditions by failing to surrender to court after Swedish authorities sought his extradition in 2010 in connection with alleged sexual offences. District judge Michael Snow found Mr Assange guilty, stating that he had not come close to establishing the case that he had a reasonable excuse for failing to surrender for arrest.
“His assertion that he has not had a fair hearing is laughable and I’m afraid is the behaviour of a narcissist who cannot get beyond his own selfish interests,” the judge said.
Mr Assange could face a 12-month jail sentence in Britain for breaching his bail terms and is likely to be held on remand while the US extradition request is processed.
The Obama administration declined to prosecute Mr Assange because it believed his activity as publisher of WikiLeaks could be covered by the same constitutional protection offered to news organisations. The American Civil Liberties Union warned yesterday that any US prosecution of Mr Assange could undermine the protection offered to other publishers.
"Any prosecution by the United States of Mr Assange for WikiLeaks' publishing operations would be unprecedented and unconstitutional, and would open the door to criminal investigations of other news organisations. Moreover, prosecuting a foreign publisher for violating US secrecy laws would set an especially dangerous precedent for US journalists, who routinely violate foreign secrecy laws to deliver information vital to the public's interest," the group's director for speech and privacy, Ben Wizner, said.
During the 2016 US presidential campaign, WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of emails from the Democratic National Committee and from Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta. At the time, Donald Trump praised the organisation, although US intelligence officials claimed the emails had been stolen as part of a Russian government operation.
Mr Trump declined to comment on Mr Assange’s arrest, saying the case was the responsibility of his attorney general. “I know nothing about WikiLeaks, it’s not my thing,” the US president said. “I know really nothing about him. It’s not my deal in life.”