If the arrest earlier this year of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has you left with a lot of questions, you are not alone. The confusion is for good reason – because while the arrest itself took place in April, the back story extends from August 2010, and has picked up a lot of parts, opinions, and players along the way.
In August of 2010, due to two separate charges – one of rape, and one of molestation – Sweden ordered a warrant for the arrest of Assange, who was arrested in London a few months later and then released on bail. In 2012, Assange skipped a very large bail payment, and during this time Sweden was aiming at extraditing him to face the sexual assault charges, so he requested asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, who granted the request on the basis of fears that his human rights may be violated.
Sweden, UK, and Ecuador
By 2015, Sweden had dropped all but the rape charge, and Britain removed their police, who had been constantly stationed outside of the Embassy hoping to catch Assange if and when he ever left the property. But he didn’t. In fact, Assange did not leave the Embassy for seven years (giving new meaning to a houseguest who overstays his welcome), relying on the internet and his balcony to connect himself to the outside world.
In 2017, Sweden gave up and dropped the charges, and the UK and Ecuador were in ongoing discussions regarding what to do with Assange, while the U.S also held their own interest in him.
When a Houseguest Overstays Their Welcome (A Teen Drama)
Over the years, Assange appears to have continually broken agreements he had made with Ecuador. The most notable of these being a failure to withhold engaging in political action (a rule mandatory for all asylum seekers, and one he broke by releasing information on WikiLeaks, including private documents from the Vatican), blocking security cameras at the Embassy, and accessing security files. In an attempt to counter his behavior, Ecuador imposed new restrictions, including limiting his visitors, and removing access to the internet, but, in response to these measures, Assange then sued under the claim that their actions were in violation of his rights. A story sounds a lot like exhausted parents who don’t know how to manage their hormonal teenager, with all of the mess, and more computer hacking.
And it is this ongoing saga that led to April this year when Ecuador finally and forcibly removed Assange, which led to his arrest by British authorities for evading bail back in 2012.
The year the sexual assault charges were laid coincided with a massive release by Wikileaks of hundreds of thousands of confidential U.S documents that were obtained by hacking into the Pentagons computer network. This was done with the help of the former Army Intelligence Analyst, Chelsea Manning, who has since been charged, jailed, released early by former President Obama, and then jailed again for refusing to testify in court about her involvement.
The documents they obtained showed the U.S. blatantly targeting civilians in Iraq, killing thousands more than officially reported, and torturing others, and targeting hundreds of civilians in Afghanistan.
Assange vs. The United States
Assange argues the initial charges were orchestrated by the U.S to silence him and his work. And, when you consider the significance of what WikiLeaks exposes, and the history between government and Assange, the claim (while horrific) also may not be so ridiculous. From Russia to Hilary Clinton, the Pope to the U.S State Department of Defense, and the CIA, it is safe to assume Assange has picked up a few enemies in his mission to expose the underbellies of politics and business.
Freedom of the Press
The Obama Administration never put forth charges on Assange, but that is not due to a lack of effort. Obama was notoriously harsh on not just leaks from within his administration, but with regards to the press, taking particular aim at trying to criminalize the act of leaking classified document
s by the press, and at Assange specifically. Ultimately, though, they had to concede, because there was no way to do it that would not result in a violation of the First Amendment.
But Trump, of course, has other plans. While there were rumors that Assange would be charged related to computer intrusion, which holds a maximum penalty of five years, the Trump Administration recently filed an 18-count indictment against him that includes claims that he was in violation of certain provisions of the Espionage Act.
The irony though is that governments do not tend to send individuals to face charges regarding espionage, as charges under this act are seen as a political crime, and thus puts the livelihood of the person in danger. So ironically, while charges may now officially be laid, the British may very well decide to deny their request for extradition.
So Where Does That Leave Us?
Charging Assange for releasing information, classified or otherwise, sets an extremely dangerous precedent for journalism. From the Times to the Washington Post, part of a journalists’ job is to expose violations by governments, and many use WikiLeaks as a source.
If the procedure of charging of Assange does follow through it will set catastrophic implications for journalism and freedom of speech – one of the bedrocks of American pride. And it does so through several branches of reasoning. In defense of their decision, the U.S argues Assange is not a journalist, which then means that anyone who speaks out or publishes information is liable to the same fate. If he is a journalist, he is being charged for the very thing journalists are supposed to be doing: uncovering and publishing truthful information. Also important to keep in mind is that Assange is Australian – not American – which creates further questions and concerns regarding the ability of other countries to do the same with foreign journalists.
Wait and See
If Assange is to be tried and arrested it should be on the rape and molestation charges that were placed on him in 2010. Because, as inconvenient it is for the U.S to have their blatant human rights violations be exposed beyond a shadow of a doubt, charging someone for sharing the truth causes serious harm to the First Amendment – an integral part of this developed country. It will be interesting to see how this plays out and to watch how it affects the progressive image of this Western country. One thing is for sure, Trump’s administration has opened another Pandora’s box that leaves the citizens in the lurch.