Founder of Wikileaks Julian Assange has been charged under the US Espionage Act 2013 and could face at least 100 years in an American prison. The Trump administration has slapped Assange with 18 charges under the Espionage Act for publicly disclosing confidential military and war-related intelligence.
The US Department of Justice (DOJ) released a statement indicting Assange with 18 charges under the Espionage Act.
The DOJ alleges, “Assange conspired with Manning; obtained from Manning and aided and abetted her in obtaining classified information with reason to believe that the information was to be used to the injury of the United States or the advantage of a foreign nation; received and attempted to receive classified information having reason to believe that such materials would be obtained, taken, made, and disposed of by a person contrary to law…”
Assange is being indicted for working with Chelsea Manning, a former member of the US Army who was convicted for leaking military documents that are now known as the Iraq War Logs and Afghan War Diary.
The DOJ also said that Assange publishing the documents on Wikileaks put not only people like dissidents, journalists, civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq but also US national security at risk.
Notably, Assange is not being prosecuted for Wikileaks’ email dump during the 2016 US presidential campaign.
Who is Julian Assange?
Assange is a 47-year-old Australian computer programmer, but is most widely known for founding Wikileaks, an online whistleblowing platform. Wikileaks, created in 2006, posts leaked confidential information that can be used against politicians and other people in power who commit unscrupulous acts.
One of the most famous instances of Wikileaks creating ripples is when it released footage of US soldiers shooting Iraqi civilians in 2010.
Like Edward Snowden who leaked information from the National Security Agency (NSA) in the US, Assange is a divisive figure in contemporary politics. Some appreciate his efforts to hold powerful people accountable while others wonder if he could use means that do not make collateral damage out of on-ground governmental employees.
After Wikileaks posted the footage of US soldiers, Assange was detained in the UK after he was accused of sexual assault and coercion in Sweden. BBC reports that Sweden issued an international arrest warrant for Assange in 2010 and the UK Supreme Court ordered extradition to Sweden in 2012.
Julian Assange vs. President of Ecuador Lenín Moreno
While battling the allegations, Assange was granted asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in 2012. However, his time at the embassy is also mired in controversy.
Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno withdrew asylum from Assange, claiming Assange broke the embassy’s conduct.
“Today, I announce that the discourteous and aggressive behaviour of Mr. Julian Assange, the hostile and threatening declarations of its allies organization, against Ecuador, and especially, the transgression of international treaties, have lead the situation to a point where the asylum of Mr. Assange is unsustainable and no longer viable”, said President Moreno in a videotaped statement.
Moreno alleges that Assange mistreated the guards, used prohibited electronics, accessed embassy documents without permission, and blocked its security cameras. However, Assange alleges that his human rights were being restricted while at the embassy.
An added layer of complication to the Assange-Ecuador issue is that prior to Assange’s arrest, Wikileaks had posted documents revealing that Moreno’s brother was using an offshore account to evade taxes. This lead to Moreno himself being investigated with talks of being impeached.
Next steps for Assange
The DOJ said that Assange is presumed innocent until he is proven guilty. If he is convicted, Assange will be sentenced to a maximum 10 years imprisonment on 17 counts under the Espionage Act and a maximum five years on the last count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion.
This means that Assange is facing up to 175 years in prison.
The DOJ says, “Actual sentences for federal crimes are typically less than the maximum penalties. A federal judge will determine any sentence after taking into account the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.”
Critics of the indictment say that the Trump administration is overreaching with the charges and penalising Assange for exercising his First Amendment or right to free speech.
Wikileaks Editor-in-Chief Kristinn Hrafnsson responded to the indictment saying that the US is “attacking basic principles of democracy in Europe and the rest of the world.”
Assange’s attorney, Barry J. Pollack, added that the charges are unprecedented and should be a warning signal to journalists that their freedom of speech is under threat.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also said, “This is an extraordinary escalation of the Trump administration’s attacks on journalism, and a direct assault on the First Amendment. It establishes a dangerous precedent that can be used to target all news organizations that hold the government accountable by publishing its secrets.”
The ACLU adds that because Assange is a foreign national, the US prosecuting him for publishing American secrets allows Chinese, Russian and other nationalities to prosecute American journalists in the future, as well.
Assange is currently imprisoned for one year in the UK for breaching bail conditions set in regard to his 2012 sexual assault case. The UK government apparently confirmed to Moreno that it would not extradite Assange to the US where he could be killed or tortured.
Rhea Arora is a Staff Writer at Qrius