By Kimberly Tuttle (CMC’19)
Many debates surrounding the legality of Julian Assange’s controversial organization, WikiLeaks, resurfaced this week in light of Assange’s recent release from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he has lived under diplomatic protection since 2012. In particular, news regarding the U.S. government’s indictment of Assange have concerned the American public. The charges at hand shed light on the tangled legal situation in which Assange and WikiLeaks are involved.
Assange, an Australian national, is a computer programmer who created the world-famous whistleblowing platform, WikiLeaks, in 2006. Since its conception, the website and its founder have faced immense legal trouble around the world for their involvement in major political scandals. One such example includes the leaking of hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. military documents and videos from the Afghan and Iraq wars, including the so-called “collateral murder” footage and “Iraq War logs,” that exposed U.S. troops conducting deadly air-to-ground attacks against civilians during the Iraqi insurgency.
WikiLeaks, over the years, has obtained and published a plethora of confidential documents and images from private sources all over the world. It also maintains a searchable database for insiders to view, collect, and share the most damaging leaks of modern times. Due to the often harmful nature of WikiLeaks’ content, many people have long-suspected that Assange would eventually be toppled by political legal charges.
Discerning the difference between a political crime and a common crime is essential in understanding Assange’s legal position. A political crime, like espionage, is an act or omission prejudicial to the interests of a state or government. Whereas, a common crime, or state crime, is an action that breaks a state’s own criminal law, like rape, theft, or robbery. Assange is suspected to have committed both types of crimes, though the processing of each crime varies drastically and only political offenders are eligible to receive international political asylum.
Assage’s legal saga began in August 2010, when the Swedish Prosecutor’s Office issued the first arrest warrant for Assange based on two separate allegations of rape and molestation. A few months later, he was arrested in London and bailed out at the second attempt. In May 2012, the UK’s Supreme Court ruled that Assange should be extradited, or handed over to a foreign state’s jurisdiction, to Sweden to face the allegations. However, Ecuador intervened and granted him political asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London based on fears over the potential violation of his human rights if he were to be extradited. He has remained there since.
Assange spent nearly seven years in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. His time there was spent fighting legal battles against the British, Ecuadorian, and American governments surrounding his behavior both inside and outside of the embassy walls. Eventually, in April 2019, the Metropolitan Police in London arrested Assange for “failing to surrender to the court” over a warrant issued in 2012 by the British government. He was found guilty and now faces up to 12 months in prison, as well as extradition to the U.S. over charges of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion.
Since U.S. charges against Assange were announced, several legal journals and political organizations have warned the public of the discrete nature of the government’s charges. The ACLU has stated, for example, that the indictment is troubling due to its inclusion of “journalistic activities that are not just lawful, but essential to press freedom.” The U.S. indictment has been widely recognized as a potential threat to journalists everywhere, since the “manners and means” of conspiracy in which it is charging Assange on includes normal journalistic practices that are utilized by many citizens in their exercise of the First Amendment. These practices include, according to the ACLU, “cultivating a source, protecting a source’s identity, communicating with a source securely.” The potential of criminalizing ordinary, constitutionally protected journalistic practices has made observers and participants of the WikiLeaks saga wary of the charges against Assange.
Assange’s lawyer issued a public statement last week saying “He’s not above the law. Julian has never been concerned about facing British justice or indeed Swedish justice. This case is and has always been about his concern about being sent to face American injustice.” Assange’s lawyer is not only guarded over worries that the U.S. government in its indictment, may sidestep constitutional rights, like freedom of the press. She, among others, is also concerned that the indictment will serve as an “opening salvo aimed at easing the path for extradition, with more substantial charges to be added later.”
Some people have interpreted America’s indictment of Assange as a deliberate attack on the freedom of the press, which is guaranteed under the First Amendment. Others see it as a legitimate legal strategy to end the threats that WikiLeaks poses upon American national security and beyond. Whether or not people believe in WikiLeaks’ mission, Assange is now unquestionably facing justice in the countries in which he has potentially committed crimes.