Washington v WikiLeaks: how the US pursued Julian Assange

<span>Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy in London in 2012.</span><span>Photograph: Gian Paul Lozza/The Guardian</span>
Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy in London in 2012.Photograph: Gian Paul Lozza/The Guardian

It is more than a decade since WikiLeaks published the material for which the US sought Julian Assange’s extradition. Here, the Guardian details the twists, turns, accusations and counter-accusations that occurred before he was finally allowed to return to his native Australia following a plea deal with the US.

The leaks

Assange, an Australian citizen, set up WikiLeaks in 2006, the same year that Twitter was launched. He, and the organisation he founded, rose to notoriety in 2010, when, in October, it published a series of leaks by Chelsea Manning, a former soldier. The most notorious was the video Collateral Murder, which showed the US army killing a dozen unarmed civilians, including two Reuters employees, in Iraq, prompting widespread condemnation.

The following month, WikiLeaks angered Washington further when it released a dump of more than 250,000 US diplomatic cables (some of which were published in the Guardian and elsewhere) causing a worldwide diplomatic crisis with some embarrassing revelations, including that US officials had been instructed to spy on the UN leadership.

The US government launched a criminal investigation into the leaks, which led to the 2013 court-martial conviction of Manning for offences including violations of the Espionage Act.

The Swedish charges and the embassy years

A Swedish arrest warrant for Assange was issued in August 2010 for two separate sexual assault allegations in Sweden, which he denied, and in November an international arrest warrant was issued.

Assange handed himself into police in London and, after an initial period in custody before being released on bail, he began an unsuccessful fight against extradition to Sweden, saying he feared authorities there would hand him over to the US for potential prosecution over the “Cablegate” documents and other releases.

On 19 June 2012, having exhausted all of his legal avenues, Assange, disguised as a motorcycle courier, walked up the steps of Ecuador’s embassy in central London and asked for asylum. He would spend 2,487 days, almost seven years, in the embassy, located behind Harrods department store.

During that time he was visited by journalists and an eclectic mix of guests, including the actor Pamela Anderson, the singer Lady Gaga, the ex-footballer Eric Cantona and the former Ukip leader Nigel Farage.

In May 2017, a month after the then US attorney general, Jeff Sessions, said Assange’s arrest was a priority for the US, Sweden’s chief prosecutor dropped its remaining investigation into the WikiLeaks founder (the statute of limitations had already expired for the other), concluding there was no practical way of continuing.

However, the British police said they would still arrest Assange if he left the embassy as he had breached the terms of his bail. Assange had told journalists in 2013 that he would not leave the embassy even if the Swedish charges were dropped because of his fear of being extradited to the US.

While the US had not gone public with charges against him, in November 2o18, the Department of Justice inadvertently named Assange in a court document, suggesting it may have indicted him in secret.

His prolonged stay in the embassy prompted concerns about the effects it was having on him. In 2015, the UN working group on arbitrary detention said he was being “arbitrarily detained”, and called on the authorities to end his “deprivation of liberty”. Three years later, clinicians who assessed Assange said his long stay in the embassy was having a “dangerous” impact on his physical and mental health.

Departure from the embassy

As time went on, Ecuador’s patience with Assange waned and it twice cut off his internet amid concerns WikiLeaks’ continued publications were interfering in other countries’ affairs. The relationship deteriorated further under President Lenin Moreno, who distanced himself from the leftist legacy of his predecessor, Rafael Correa, who had been in office when Assange entered the embassy.

On 11 April 2019, nine days after Moreno said he had “repeatedly violated” the conditions of his asylum, Assange was dragged out of the building when his asylum was withdrawn. Plainclothes officers carried him to a waiting police van which transported him to Belmarsh prison where he has been ever since.

Scotland Yard said he was arrested for skipping bail, but also on behalf of the US which had charged Assange with “a federal charge of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion for agreeing to break a password to a classified US government computer”.

On 1 May 2019, Assange was jailed for 50 weeks for breaching his bail conditions in 2012, but it was merely a prelude to what his supporters called the “big fight” as the next day US extradition proceedings formally began.

Later that month the US confirmed Assange’s worst fears as it announced 17 additional charges against him, all under the Espionage Act, which went far beyond the initial indictment made public when he was removed from the embassy. Sweden also announced it was reopening its investigation into a rape allegation against him, although this would be discontinued in November with Swedish prosecutors saying the evidence was not strong enough to bring charges, partly citing the passage of time.

On 13 June, the then home secretary, Sajid Javid, revealed that he had signed the US extradition order for Assange, paving the way for the legal battle to begin.

The fight against US extradition

The wheels of justice turned slowly for Assange: his extradition hearing began in February 2020, was adjourned until May and then delayed further because of the coronavirus outbreak, before resuming at the Old Bailey in September.

In January 2021, there was a short-lived victory for him when the district judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled that “the mental condition of Mr Assange is such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the United States of America” because it would be impossible to stop him killing himself in the US prison system. The US immediately announced it would appeal against the decision and in December it was overturned by the high court on the basis of US assurances about his treatment, prompting condemnation from press freedom advocates.

In March 2022, the UK supreme court refused Assange permission to appeal, and in June the then home secretary, Priti Patel, approved his extradition, inching him ever closer to being tried in the US.

Another hearing for permission to appeal, on different grounds, went against Assange at the high court in June last year, leaving him one final bite at the cherry in the UK courts.

In January this year, his legal team began a renewed permission to appeal hearing at the high court, with Assange facing extradition within days if unsuccessful. His wife, Stella, said his only hope would then be for the European court of human rights to halt his extradition, although, with the bar for its intervention set high, that was far from a given. The judges said Assange could attend the hearing but he was too ill to do so, adding to concerns about his health in Belmarsh. Protesters massed outside the court demanding that he be freed.

When the high court’s decision came in March, it was inconclusive, with the two judges saying Assange could take his case to an appeal hearing but only if the US was unable to provide the court with suitable assurances. In April, the US provided assurances but, two months later, in a decision greeted by gasps from supporters inside the court and cheers outside, the judges granted the WikiLeaks founder permission to appeal, deeming it arguable that, should he be extradited, he might not be able to rely on the US first amendment, which protects freedom of speech there, and that he might be “prejudiced at trial” due to his nationality.

The US change of heart

Between the renewed permission to appeal hearing and the decision, the first sign of a US rethink emerged. The Wall Street Journal reported that Washington was considering a plea deal in which the espionage charges would be dropped if Assange admitted, in London, to a misdemeanour. Assange’s legal team expressed scepticism. However, when Joe Biden responded to a question about Australia’s requests for the US to drop the prosecution with: “We’re considering it”, those closest to him allowed themselves to hope.

Nevertheless, a week ago, a hearing date of 8 and 9 July was set for the appeal, suggesting the US was fighting on. But, in the early hours of Tuesday morning, Wikileaks posted a video showing its founder boarding a plane on Monday evening at London Stansted airport, to take him to Australia. After Assange had agreed to plead guilty to a single criminal count of conspiring to obtain and disclose classified US national defence documents, his family, friends and supporters finally had the news they had all been waiting for.