Julian Assange’s legal battles have only just begun
He entered Ecuador’s London embassy in 2012, lauded by some as a charismatic defender of truth and journalistic collaborator, fleeing what he claimed were the crosshairs of the United States.
Cut to almost seven years on, the extraordinary scenes of a disheveled Julian Assange dragged from his diplomatic sanctuary exposed the damaging impact of his time in self-imposed exile.
The 47-year-old WikiLeaks founder put his legal problems on hold during the 2,488 days he spent in the Ecuadorian Embassy. And now he’s out, they are more complicated than ever.
Where is he now?
Following his abrupt eviction from Ecuador’s tiny embassy in Knightsbridge two weeks ago, UK authorities sent Assange to Her Majesty’s Prison Belmarsh — one of the most secure facilities in England and Wales.
The prison in Thamesmead, southeast London, has the capacity to hold more than 900 inmates. Within the facility, there are four main residential blocks as well as a high-security unit — known for previously housing some of Britain’s most notorious terror suspects including Abu Hamza al-Masri and Anjem Choudary.
Andy Keen-Downs, chief executive of Pact, a rehabilitation charity that provides family services at prisons across the country, described Belmarsh as an “intimidating” facility.
“Like most prisons, conditions in Belmarsh are austere,” Keen-Downs told CNN. “Conditions are very basic. Prison staff work hard to keep prisoners safe, but like most prisons there are occasions when there could be violence. It could be a very intimidating atmosphere.
“During the night, the atmosphere could be very daunting with a lot of noise,” he explained.
Keen-Downs said the facility receives a mixture of prisoners, allocating them single or shared cells. “In the middle of the prison is the area built for high-security prisoners,” he added.
CNN has been unable to verify where Assange is being held within the prison while on remand.
During his time at Belmarsh, Assange will be entitled to receive visitors. While on remand he will be entitled to three one-hour visits a week, Keen-Downs said.
However, his lawyers told CNN that in the two weeks since his arrival, they were only permitted to meet their client in person once on Friday. A spokesperson for the UK Ministry of Justice — the government body responsible for the justice system — said it does not comment on individual cases. The spokesperson added that prisoners at Belmarsh are usually able to start receiving visitors “within a matter of days.”
What are the charges Assange is facing?
Here’s where things get tricky. In the UK, Assange was wanted for skipping bail back in 2012. Days before he entered the embassy, the country’s top court upheld a decision to extradite the Australian to Sweden over allegations of sexual assault and rape.
The violation of those bail conditions remained throughout the almost seven years Assange was squirreled away in his diplomatic bolthole. And so in the hours after his dramatic eviction, a judge declared Assange guilty and ordered him to appear at Southwark Crown Court for sentencing at a later date. For this, Assange is facing up to 12 months.
Then there’s the American action. The UK stunned the world with its revelation Assange had also been arrested “in relation to a provisional extradition request from the United States of America.” Shortly after, the US Justice Department unsealed a 2018 indictment for one count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion with Chelsea Manning in 2012. This charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
And his worries don’t appear to end there as US prosecutors have already signaled more charges could be on the way.
Here comes Sweden … again?
Possibly complicating matters further is the prospect of the Swedish case being resumed.
On the heels of Assange’s arrest, a woman who accused the WikiLeaks founder of rape during a visit to the country in August 2010 called for the Swedish investigation to be reopened. Prosecutors acted quickly and assigned the case for review.
Assange has always feared that once in Sweden, he could be extradited to the US for his work with WikiLeaks and has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
Under Swedish law, any charges related to the rape allegation must be made by August 2020. When contacted by CNN on Wednesday, the prosecuting authority said it was still reviewing the request to reopen the case.
Will he be extradited? And if so, where to?
As it stands, there is officially one provisional extradition request for Assange — from the US.
Extradition requests to the UK from outside the EU are governed by Part 2 of the Extradition Act 2003. Once an extradition hearing has been set, it will not be for the UK courts to determine culpability. A judge would only determine whether the US request satisfies the “dual criminality” legal requirement — meaning that the alleged crime is illegal in both countries. The judge would also consider if granting extradition would breach his human rights.
If satisfied that the claim meets procedural conditions, the case would be sent to the Home Secretary for a final decision on ordering the extradition.
UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid told members of parliament on April 11 that UK law dictates that the US has up to 65 days to send full extradition papers to the judge.
In the meantime, Assange is scheduled to appear via videolink from Belmarsh before a judge at Westminster Magistrates’ Court on May 2 over his possible extradition — which could take years to decide.
Jennifer Robinson, one of the lawyers on Assange’s legal team told CNN on Saturday: “It is a matter of international concern that a publisher is being held in a high security prison facing extradition to the US for his work that has won journalism awards the world over. We are very concerned about his health.”
Robinson added, “He is grateful for the solidarity shown around the world.”
In the event that Sweden chooses to continue legal procedures, it could refile a European Arrest Warrant (EAW). Sweden previously issued a warrant for Assange’s arrest in 2010, which he said forced him to seek protection from Ecuador years later.
Valid across the European Union since 2004, the EAW was designed to speed up lengthy extradition operations and allows EU members to ask for the arrest and surrender of criminals in other member states.
Giovanna Fiorentino, an extradition lawyer at the criminal law firm Lansbury Worthington, told CNN that EAWs are “much simpler as opposed to the more convoluted Extradition Request which are quasi judicial and political as the Secretary of State has the ultimate decision.”
If competing extradition claims do emerge, Javid will be left to make a call over which petition takes precedence, according to extradition lawyer Rebecca Niblock of Kingsley Napley.
“[Javid] would make that decision based on four things which are: firstly, the relative seriousness of the offenses; secondly, the place where the offense is committed; thirdly, the date the warrant was issued and when the request was received and fourthly, whether the person is accused or convicted.”
She continued: “It would be a very difficult decision for the Home Secretary to make because he would then have to decide on the seriousness of the offenses … rape against the computer intrusion. In my view the offense of rape would the more serious one — it carries a sentence of life imprisonment in this country.”
Already more than 70 British lawmakers have urged Javid “to stand with the victims of sexual violence” and offer Sweden the UK’s full support.
Could Assange end up in Australia?
Meanwhile in Australia, Assange’s parents have ramped up efforts to have the free speech activist brought home.
Greg Barns, a lawyer for Julian’s father John Shipton, told CNN, “Both John and Julian’s mother Christine are concerned about their son being held in a maximum-security prison, as any parent would be. But the situation in the embassy became intolerable and unbearable.”
Barns said the pair “want to bring Julian back to Australia” and highlighted legal precedence with the case of David Hicks, an Australian citizen accused of supporting terrorism in Afghanistan and transferred to Guantanamo in 2002. Hick’s father fought a tireless campaign to have his son brought back to his home country, and eventually the Australian government intervened.
After being held for five years there, Hicks was transferred to Australia to serve the remaining nine months of a seven-year suspended sentence. The conviction was vacated in 2015.
“10 years ago, the Howard government, under pressure, had David Hicks brought back to Australia. Pressure from his father, his legal team and because of the way Australia perceived his treatment [at Guantanamo],” Barns explained.
That is why, Barns said, the prospect of having Assange brought back to Australia is “not an unrealistic goal.”
“Julian’s case is different but there are some similarities here that there is a view among Australians that the US justice system is political and there is a level of discomfort with that,” he added.
A change.org petition calling for the Australian government to intervene in Assange’s legal quagmire has grown in support since his arrest, garnering more than 124,000 signatures by Friday evening.
Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison was cautious following Assange’s arrest but stressed that support would be offered.
“Julian Assange will get the same consular support and assistance that any other Australian would receive,” Morrison said on April 12, adding that a person’s fame would not affect how decisions are made.
A spokesperson for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told CNN on Saturday that the government “continues to provide consular assistance to Mr. Assange including visiting him in prison and communicating with his next of kin in Australia.”
For the time being Assange’s fate rests with the UK courts. However his case develops, one thing is certain: Leaving the embassy was not the end of his story, if anything it was just the beginning.
Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify the nature of the investigation Julian Assange is facing in Sweden.