WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is facing extradition to the US following his arrest at the Ecuadorean embassy in London, charged with involvement in a computer hacking conspiracy that led to one of the “largest compromises of classified information in US history”.
Hours after he was seized by police Mr Assange he was found guilty at Westminster Magistrates’ Court of jumping bail on an extradition order to Sweden. The WikiLeaks founder will be sentenced at a future date and is facing up to 12 months in prison.
The US authorities are seeking the extradition of the 47-year-old activist alleging he helped former US army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning leak a trove of official US documents and communications in a scandal that became known as “Cablegate”.
The indictment, filed in March 2018 but unsealed on Thursday, accused Mr Assange with helping Ms Manning to try to crack a password. If successful, this would have allowed Ms Manning to log on to computers under a username that did not belong to her.
“Manning and Assange engaged in real time discussions regarding Manning’s transmission of classified records to Assange,” federal prosecutors alleged. “The discussions also reflect Assange actively encouraging Manning to provide more information.”
Mr Assange, if found guilty, faces a maximum prison sentence of five years, the US justice department said.
With a bushy unkempt beard, Mr Assange appeared calm in court in London, dressed in a black jacket and black shirt, and holding a book by Gore Vidal.
District judge Michael Snow said Mr Assange’s decision to skip bail was “about as serious as it can get”.
“His assertion that he has not had a fair hearing is laughable and is the behaviour of a narcissist . . . his behaviour is shameful.”
Mr Assange will also appear before Westminster Magistrates’ Court in May by video link in connection with his US extradition case, which will be heard at a later date.
Mr Assange’s lawyer Barry Pollack said in a statement that journalists around the world should be deeply troubled by “the unprecedented criminal charges” brought by the US.
“While the indictment against Julian Assange disclosed today charges a conspiracy to commit computer crimes, the factual allegations against Mr Assange boil down to encouraging a source to provide him information and taking efforts to protect the identify of that source,” he said.
Charges were not brought against Mr Assange during the Obama administration after officials concluded there was no clear line between the publication of classified documents by WikiLeaks and the activities of US news organisations.
The stance changed after Donald Trump became president, despite his praise of WikiLeaks during the campaign when it published hacked emails that were damaging to Hillary Clinton.
In April 2017 Jeff Sessions, then attorney-general, said the arrest of Mr Assange was a “priority” for the Trump administration. The indictment announced on Thursday was dated March 2018, 11 months later.
Ecuador’s president Lenín Moreno said in a video statement the country had withdrawn Mr Assange’s political asylum because he had flouted the conditions of the arrangement.
The WikiLeaks founder was granted asylum in the embassy in 2012 after he faced extradition to Sweden to face questioning in a rape investigation. The Swedish authorities dropped the case in 2017 because his diplomatic protection meant they could not carry out their European arrest warrant.
Mr Pollack said in a statement: “It is bitterly disappointing that a country would allow someone to whom it has extended citizenship and asylum to be arrested in its embassy.”
Relations between the WikiLeaks founder and his host nation became strained after Mr Moreno’s election in 2017. The Ecuadorean embassy last year established new rules for Mr Assange, requiring him to pay his own medical bills and clean up after his cat.
Mr Moreno cited the “discourteous and aggressive behaviour” of Mr Assange, as well as what he termed “hostile and threatening declarations” against Ecuador by WikiLeaks for his decision.
He said this included a leak of confidential Vatican documents by WikiLeaks in January, and added that “key members” of WikiLeaks “visited Mr Assange before and after such illegal acts” and said this “confirmed the world’s suspicion that Mr Assange is still linked to WikiLeaks”.
WikiLeaks said in a Twitter statement that the termination of Mr Assange’s asylum was “illegal”, while human rights activist Peter Tatchell claimed in a BBC interview that Mr Moreno’s decision followed “incredible pressure” by the US government.
Russian officials, who have spoken out in defence of Mr Assange during his time in the embassy, on Thursday described his treatment as a “witch hunt”.
“The whole story, with the persecutions against him, the witch hunt, the creation of inhumane conditions of existence, obliterates freedom of speech and the right to disseminate information,” said foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova. “This is a blow to the rights of a journalist. And there can be no other assessment.”
Sajid Javid, UK home secretary, said on Twitter: “I would like to thank Ecuador for its co-operation and [the Metropolitan Police] for its professionalism. No one is above the law.”
Jeremy Hunt, UK foreign secretary, described Mr Moreno’s decision to terminate the WikiLeaks founder’s asylum as “courageous”.