LONDON (AFP): WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s seven-year hideout in Ecuador’s London embassy ended spectacularly Thursday when British police arrested him on an extradition request from the United States to face hacking charges.
Footage shot by the Russian video news agency Ruptly showed a frantic-looking Assange — his worn face framed by a bushy white beard and shock of silver hair — being hustled out of the building by burly men in suits and pulled into one of two waiting police vans.
A Ruptly reporter who shot the scene and requested anonymity told AFP that Assange shouted “UK must resist” as he was hauled away by at least seven men dressed in dark suits and ties.
The scene took place on a plush side street in the heart of London that has been Assange’s refuge from prosecution since 2012.
“No one is above the law,” British Prime Minister Theresa May said to a round of cheers in parliament.
The moment of high drama came after Ecuador, which has grown increasingly frustrated with Assange’s stay under pro-US President Lenin Moreno, withdrew its asylum.
UK police said Assange had been initially arrested for breaching his bail conditions in 2012 and then “further arrested on behalf of the United States authorities”.
- Assange court appearance –
Within hours, pony-tailed Assange appeared in court for a brief hearing where he gave a thumbs-up sign to the press gallery and sat reading a copy of Gore Vidal’s book “History of the National Security State” about the US military-industrial complex, before the hearing began.
Judge Emma Arbuthnot pronounced Assange guilty of the bail charge, which carries a sentence of up to a year in prison, and remanded him in custody to face sentencing at an unspecified later date. He also faces a separate hearing on the US extradition request on May 2.
Assange had long suspected that he was secretly wanted by Washington for his decision to publish a trove of classified Pentagon documents detailing alleged US war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq.
US authorities had steadfastly refused to confirm reports that they had issued a sealed indictment against Assange — until Thursday.
The US Justice Department said Assange was being charged with a computer hacking conspiracy relating to his work with former US intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in March 2010.
“Assange is charged with conspiracy to commit computer intrusion and is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” a US Justice Department statement said.
“If convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison.”
- Guarantee against death penalty –
Assange will now be at the heart of a legal and diplomatic tug of war pitting him and his legions of supporters — including Russian authorities — against the US justice system.
His US-based attorney Barry Pollack condemned “an unprecedented effort by the United States seeking to extradite a foreign journalist to face criminal charges for publishing truthful information”.
WikiLeaks accused Ecuador of breaching international law by withdrawing his asylum.
Ecuador’s Moreno insisted that he had “asked Great Britain for the guarantee that Mr Assange will not be extradited to any country in which he could suffer torture or face the death penalty”.
- ‘Dark moment for freedom’ –
Assange’s case has opened up a broader debate about security and free speech.
His supporters view him as a fearless exposer of injustices such as torture and alleged war crimes committed by the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Assange’s critics accuse him of cosying up to authoritarian leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and putting Americans’ lives at risk.
Fugitive former US government contractor Edward Snowden — himself wanted for leaking details of secret US surveillance programmes — called Assange’s arrest a “dark moment for press freedom”.
Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova accused Britain of “strangling freedom”.
But UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Assange “has hidden from the truth for years” and was trying to “escape facing justice”.
“He is no hero,” Hunt said.
- ‘Truman Show’ –
WikiLeaks on Wednesday had claimed that it was being blackmailed by “dubious characters” who had obtained security camera footage of Assange inside the embassy.
WikiLeaks editor Kristinn Hrafnsson accused Ecuador authorities of gathering the images as well as copies of private documents prepared for Assange by his lawyers.
Hrafnsson said these had then found their way into the hands of a group in Spain that was demanding $3 million (2.7 million euros) not to publish them.
“Since Moreno took power in Ecuador (in 2017), Julian Assange has been living in a Truman Show type (surveillance) situation,” Hrafnsson said.