WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was arrested by British police early Thursday at the Ecuadorian Embassy that has sheltered him for the past seven years from extradition requests. The embassy had withdrawn Assange’s asylum status, leaving him to vulnerable to arrest by U.K. authorities who were complying with an extradition request from the U.S., according to British and American authorities.
Assange now faces charges in the U.S. “in connection with a federal charge of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion for agreeing to break a password to a classified US government computer,” according to the Justice Department. The charges relate to his role in the 2010 publication of a trove of Iraq War documents and diplomatic cables leaked by Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning—what the DOJ called in its press release “one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States.”
In a court document unsealed Thursday by federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia, prosecutors allege Assange “engaged in a conspiracy” with Manning by helping her crack a password stored on Defense Department computers connected to a network only used for classified documents and classified communication. The DOJ also said in the press release that Assange urged Manning to find more documents for him to publish.
Assange is charged with conspiracy to commit computer intrusion and faces a maximum of five years in prison.
In the U.K., Assange faces charges of “failing to surrender to the court” for extradition stemming from a 2012 rape inquiry in Sweden, which has since been closed without formal charges against Assange. According to the Guardian, the Swedish news site Expressen is reporting that a lawyer who represents one of Assange’s accusers in Sweden has submitted a request to have the preliminary investigation into the case resumed. Assange pleaded not guilty to the charges of skipping bail, according to the BBC. He faces up to a year in prison in the U.K.
Assange has been under investigation in the U.S. for potentially more severe crimes, such as espionage, the publication of sensitive government documents, and coordination with Russia. WikiLeaks released thousands of stolen emails from the Democratic National Committee and from John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, during the run-up to the 2016 election in what some have considered an act that may have swayed the outcome of the election. Intelligence officials later determined that Russian hackers, under the supervision of the Russian government, had obtained the emails. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation found that Russian military intelligence officers had discussed releasing those emails to WikiLeaks at a time that would do the most damage to Clinton’s campaign.
But Assange’s potential extradition appears related only to the charges stemming from the 2010 leak of Iraq War secrets. Manning served seven years of a 35-year sentence in prison on espionage and other charges until President Obama commuted her sentence in January 2017, but WikiLeaks itself was saved by First Amendment press protections. (Manning was jailed again last month for refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks and Assange.)
Since the leak, the Department of Justice had continued to weigh the possibility of charging Assange. Although the Obama administration decided to avoid setting a precedent that could curtail press freedoms, the Trump administration, which has been more zealous about prosecuting leaks and appeared to have set up the argument that WikiLeaks is not a journalistic organization, is now charging Assange for his alleged role in helping Manning steal the documents, not for publishing them—a notable difference for those concerned about press freedoms. In November, a court filing for a separate case accidentally revealed that Assange had been charged under seal.
A judge in the Westminster Magistrates’ Court on Thursday found Assange guilty of breaching bail and referred him to Crown Court for sentencing, calling him a “narcissist who cannot get beyond his own selfish interest.” His extradition hearing is scheduled for May 2. U.S. officials confirmed to the Washington Post that extradition papers have already been prepared. Carlos Poveda, Assange’s lawyer in Ecuador, told ABC News that he believed the arrest violated international conventions on human rights.
Earlier this month, Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno accused WikiLeaks of leaking personal information about him and intercepting phone calls and private conversations, according to the Associated Press. After Assange’s arrest Thursday, Moreno released a video statement in which he denounced “the discourteous and aggressive behavior of Mr. Julian Assange” and explained that his behavior and “the hostile and threatening declarations of its allied organization, against Ecuador, and especially the transgression of international treaties” had led to the country’s decision to withdraw asylum. He specifically cited the leaking of documents from the Vatican in January in his condemnation of WikiLeaks’ meddling in other states’ affairs. Assange’s relationship with the Ecuadorian government had long been reported to be rocky, and for almost a year there had been talk of the government withdrawing asylum.
In response to the news, WikiLeaks has reasserted on Twitter that Assange was acting as a journalist and is being unfairly persecuted. “This man is a son, a father, a brother,” WikiLeaks said on Twitter. “He has won dozens of journalism awards. He’s been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize every year since 2010. Powerful actors, including CIA, are engaged in a sophisticated effort to dehumanise, delegitimize and imprison him.”