Julian Assange: what’s the sitch?

Image Source: Rob Pinney/LNP/REX/Shutterstock

By Anna Day | @anna_day_

British authorities recently arrested Julian Assange after his seven-year stint at the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

Despite this recent development, the whole saga — which spans several years and involves a plethora of opinions and motivations — can be tricky to wrap our heads around.

For a lot of university students, Assange has been couped up in the Ecuadorian embassy since the beginning of high school.

That’s a long time to recall all the facts surrounding Assange’s stay as the world’s longest house guest, so here’s on the entire situation.
Who is Julian Assange?

Julian Assange is an Australian-national computer programmer, journalist, and founder of the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks.

In 2010, WikiLeaks published thousands of classified and sensitive US government documents that were leaked by Chelsea Manning, a disenfranchised US military intelligence officer.

The site also published a video obtained by Manning, showing a US army helicopter mistakenly shooting at unarmed civilians in Iraq, including children and journalists.

The leaked video and documents caused global outrage, and unsettled the US political establishment.

There’s no getting past that Assange is a divisive figure.

He’s either a champion of transparency and accountability in a digital age, or a dangerous radical who destabilises world politics and endangers the lives of deployed military personnel.

More recently, Assange’s murky ties with Russia have also been hinted at when it was found that in 2016, WikiLeaks published thousands of emails relating to Hillary Clinton’s presidential election campaign; emails that were obtained by Russia’s military intelligence spy agency, according to a 2018 indictment by the special prosecutor Robert Mueller.

The emails exposed unsavoury information about the now unsuccessful presidential candidate, which in turn, helped Donald Trump arrive in the White House: a goal that many speculate Russia had set out to achieve.
Why was he in the Ecuadorian embassy?

In August 2012, Assange entered the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to avoid facing extradition to Sweden where he was being charged with one count of rape and one count of molestation from two separate women.

Assange denied the charges and feared that if he was extradited to Sweden, he would then be extradited again to the US, where he would face a conspiracy to commit computer intrusion charge from 2010.

The Ecuadorian president at the time, Rafael Correa, was an anti-American politician and granted Assange asylum in what some would call a power play over the US.
Why did he get kicked out?

There were some weird reports surrounding Assange’s behaviour leading up to his eviction from the Ecuadorian Embassy.

Embassy staff alleged he skateboarded at night, played loud music, kept poor hygiene, walked around in his underwear, and didn’t clean up after his pet cat.

Ecuadorian authorities alleged he even smeared his own faeces on the walls of the embassy in what was assumed to be an act of defiance against internet restrictions placed upon him by Ecuador.

“When you’re given shelter, cared for, and provided food, you don’t denounce the owner of the house,” Ecuador’s new president Lenin Moreno said in a speech, after British authorities arrested Assange.

Assange’s lawyer Jennifer Robinson told Sky News on Sunday, however, that the more crappy allegations are not true.

“I think the first thing to say is Ecuador has been making some pretty outrageous allegations over the past few days to justify what was an unlawful and extraordinary act in allowing British police to come inside an embassy,” Ms Robinson said on Sky News on Sunday.

There is no denying though that Assange’s online activities made international relations increasingly difficult for Ecuador.

Not only did Clinton’s 2016 email hacking scandal happen while Assange was staying in the embassy, but Assange also tweeted his support for Catalan in 2017 (much to the annoyance of the Spanish government in Madrid).

This behaviour – along with the fact that, unlike his predecessor, the current Ecuadorian President Moreno wants closer ties with the US – meant that the continuation of Assange’s asylum became seriously rocky.

What will happen to him now?

Assange has been arrested in the UK for failing to attend court back in 2012 when he first entered the embassy to avoid extradition.

He faces up to 12 months in a British prison for that offence alone.

Although Sweden dropped the rape charges several years ago, there’s some tentative talk about whether they’ll reopen the investigation, given the statute of limitations in one of the cases doesn’t expire until 2020.

For now though, Assange faces a hearing on May 2 where the court will decide whether to extradite him to the US to face the conspiracy to commit computer intrusion charge, alongside Chelsea Manning.

If convicted in the US, Assange will face a maximum fiveyear prison sentence.

However, other charges may be brought following Assange’s extradition.

Nils Melzer, the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on torture, said Assange faces the real risk of serious violations of his human rights, including his freedom of expression, his right to a fair trial, and the prohibition of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

International lawyer and UniSA Law School lecturer Juliette McIntyre said although the potential remains, currently none of Julian Assange’s human rights are being directly violated.

One of the main concerns is whether Assange would face the death penalty in the US, but Ms. McIntyre said this appears unlikely.

“Not only does the charge of conspiracy not attract the death penalty, but Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) guarantees the right against inhumane and degrading treatment,” she said.

“This is not an automatic protection against the death penalty, but the European Court of Human Rights has held that the execution method, the sentence’s disproportionality to the gravity of the crime, and so on, might result in a breach of Article 3.

“Because of this, the UK will, and has in Assange’s case, asked for assurances that the death penalty will not be imposed before deciding whether to extradite.”

There are also legitimate doubts that Assange would be able to face a fair trial in the U.S due to his notoriety.
Then there is the more general ‘freedom of speech’ issue.

“Freedom of the press in the United States is legally protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution,” Ms McIntyre said.

“But the charge against Assange is one of conspiracy, and so doesn’t directly infringe against this protection.”

Ms McIntyre said that although no particular right is being violated, the fear is that his prosecution may have a ‘chilling’ effect on the media by setting a new precedent that places limits on any journalist who wants to access information.

No matter which way you dice it, the future for Assange is looking a bit grim.

If the past decade has taught us anything about Assange’s tenacity, it’s likely we haven’t heard the last of him, or his company WikiLeaks.

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