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By Patrick Smith
LONDON — For the first time in almost seven years, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange woke up on Friday morning outside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. He had spent 2,487 consecutive days living in two small rooms to avoid being arrested after skipping bail.
But he is not free: After Ecuador withdrew asylum, seven policemen carried a screaming Assange into a waiting police van on Thursday morning.
The man behind the biggest military intelligence leak in history was arrested and later found guilty of failing to surrender to police in a case dating to 2012. Assange was also slapped with an extradition order from the U.S., which has charged him with conspiring to hack into secret files — a crime that carries a maximum five-year sentence.
He’s now in Belmarsh prison, a maximum security jail in southeast London waiting to learn his fate.
So what is in store for the renegade transparency activist?
Assange will soon be sentenced for failing to surrender to police in 2012, when he was fighting an extradition order to Sweden where prosecutors wanted to charge him with sexual assault and rape.
During Thursday’s hearing, district judge Michael Snow accused Assange of being a “narcissist” and called his assertion that he had not had a fair hearing “laughable” — comments that will enrage Assange and his supporters and may become the subject of a formal complaint.
He faces up to 12 months in jail, although typically in the U.K. prisoners are released halfway through their sentence and made to serve the rest “on licence.” This puts certain restrictions and conditions on offenders, such as meeting a probation officer once a week, sticking to a curfew and wearing an electronic locator tag.
Back in 2012, he was due to appear at a police station according to the terms of his bail, but instead he went to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London dressed as a motorcycle messenger, knowing that police wouldn’t enter and arrest him due to diplomatic custom.
However, the more serious charge facing him is that he conspired with U.S. intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to hack into military intelligence files — this is the subject of Washington’s extradition request.
In April 2010. WikiLeaks released a video provided to them by Manning showing a 2007 U.S. airstrike that killed more than 10 Iraqis and two journalists. The U.S. Army whistleblower was later arrested and sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking the trove of military intelligence records. Her sentence was commuted by President Barack Obama in 2017 after seven years behind bars.
Assange will appear via video link in court on May 2 to hear the extradition order and again on June 12. Don’t expect an outcome soon: This process could take up to two years and possibly longer. Depending on the outcome of Brexit, Assange could potentially take his case from the U.K. courts all the way to the European Court of Justice in Strasbourg, the ultimate legal arbiter for E.U. states.
Assange describes himself as a journalist and it is likely that his legal team will focus on his role as publisher of material in the public interest, which was presented in partnership with mainstream news organizations including The Guardian and The New York Times.
It is not certain that this approach will work.
“My understanding of the European Court case law is that there are cases where there have been prosecutions against journalists — usually they’re for things like defamation of public figures or publishing things that they shouldn’t have,” said Adam Wagner, a leading human rights lawyer who is not connected to or acting in the Assange case.
“I don’t think there’s been any case involving a developed democracy with sophisticated national security laws … where a journalist, or whatever you want to call Assange, has avoided a prosecution for hacking into or breaking into national security files,” he added. “It just seems really unlikely.”
Assange’s team could also argue that what the indictment accuses him of trying to do — creating a new password to access the secret files under a different username — was in an attempt to give Manning greater anonymity.
“I suppose Assange’s best free expression argument, which I expect they will be making, is it’s all about protection of sources,” Wagner said. “It is possible to argue that was what he was doing, not conspiring to get the files — it was about ensuring that Manning wasn’t identified and wasn’t caught.”
Wagner also pointed out that while some journalists have been highly skeptical of Assange’s journalistic defense, many big stories in the past have been legally questionable.
“Some journalists are saying, ‘we all know the difference between illegality and non-illegality.’ But some of the great scoops of the past, such as the Pentagon Papers, were very much in a gray area of legality.”
British legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg said it was unlikely Assange’s public interest defense would be well received by the U.K. courts.
“He does have rights of freedom of expression, sure, but it doesn’t mean that you are able to change passwords and all that stuff just because you think that the ultimate aim justifies the means. He may try this but I don’t think he will get very far,” he said.
“The scope for argument is over whether what he’s accused of doing in the U.S. is the equivalent of a crime in the U.K. I’m not sure what the equivalent crime would be but I’m sure there must be one. But will he try to fight it all the way? I’m sure he will.”
Ecuador said Thursday that it had extracted a promise from the U.K. that Assange wouldn’t be sent anywhere that he could face the death penalty or torture. This could be an element that crops up in the hearings ahead.
Meanwhile, a subplot in the Assange saga is that it remains possible he could face extradition to Sweden. Prosecutors there confirmed that while the sexual assault charge against him had now lapsed, a rape charge would remain active, should Assange set foot in Sweden, until August 2020.
However, it’s likely the U.K. would consider the extradition requests in the order they are received and the U.S. got there first.
In the meantime, Assange has to get used to life in a different kind of captivity.