FAQ: The story behind Julian Assange's extradition case and legal saga

Julian Assange on May 19, 2017, in London.


By ADAM TAYLOR AND MIRIAM BERGER | The Washington Post | Published: January 4, 2021

Julian Assange, an activist and whistleblower, has pitted himself against the U.S. government for more than a decade.

On Monday, U.S. efforts to extradite him to stand trial over allegations of leaking classified intelligence materials were thwarted by a British court, which found that the WikiLeaks founder was depressed and at extreme risk of suicide. U.S. prosecutors are expected to appeal the decision to Britain's High Court, a process that could take several months, if not longer.

The extradition request denial in the latest stage in an international game of cat and mouse that began nearly a decade ago. Assange spend seven years in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London, claiming political asylum to avoid arrest after jumping bail when Sweden requested his extradition due to sexual assault allegations.

The Swedish charges were dropped in 2017, but after the embassy evicted Assange last year he was arrested by the British police on behalf of the United States. His trial was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Assange's fate is the subject of political importance in the United States, where WikiLeaks, which published hacked Democratic National Committee data, has been accused of playing a significant role in the 2016 election.

Free expression advocates have argued that an Assange trial in the United States would be a setback for press freedom. Some of Assange's supporters have urged President Trump, during his final days in office, to issue a pardon.

Who is Julian Assange and what is WikiLeaks?

Assange, 49, was born in Queensland, Australia, and became known as a computer hacker during his teens. In 2006, he was a co-founder of an anti-secrecy organization called WikiLeaks in 2006 with the stated aim of creating a platform that would allow leaked documents to be published safely online.

In 2010, Assange and WikiLeaks gained international attention, and considerable acclaim, for a series of leaks on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. One leak from this time, dubbed "Collateral Murder" by WikiLeaks, showed a 2007 incident in which a U.S. Army helicopter shot and killed a dozen people, including two employees of news agency Reuters.

Assange, with his prematurely white hair and iconoclastic style, became an international celebrity. But WikiLeaks suffered a set back when Chelsea Manning, a former U.S. solder who had leaked hundreds of thousands of documents, was arrested in 2010.

Manning was convicted at a court-martial in 2013 and sentenced to 35 years in prison. President Barack Obama commuted her sentence in 2017, following seven years in prison.

Why did Assange spend seven years in the Ecuadoran Embassy?

In November 2010, Swedish authorities issued an international arrest warrant for Assange in relation to questioning over allegations of sexual assault. Assange initially cooperated with police in Britain, where he was living, but denied the allegations and argued they were a pretext for him to be extradited from Sweden to the United States.

After losing a lengthy legal battle in 2012 that had seen the case go all the way to Britain's Supreme Court, Assange entered the Ecuadoran Embassy in London in June and refused to leave. He was granted political asylum in August, but was unable to leave the building as British police guarded it around-the-clock.

Though the Swedish investigation was eventually dropped, Assange remained in the embassy for years. However, amid faltering relations with his Ecuadoran hosts, his asylum status was withdrawn in 2019 and British police entered the building and arrested him on charges of breaching his bail conditions.

What was his role in the 2016 U.S. election?

While Assange was in the Ecuadoran Embassy, he continued his work on WikiLeaks. In July and October of 2016, WikiLeaks published material that had been stolen from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta.

The material, widely viewed to have affected the election in favor of the eventual winner, Trump, is believed to have been stolen by Russia-backed hackers. An investigation into the allegations of Russian electoral interference by special counsel Robert Mueller did not publicly release any evidence of direct links between Russia and WikiLeaks.

Trump initially welcomed WikiLeak's intervention, at one point saying "I love WikiLeaks" during the 2016 campaign. But after entering office, his administration distanced itself from Assange.

Why is the U.S. seeking him now?

The Trump administration wants Assange, an Australian citizen, to stand trial in a federal court in Virginia on charges of violating the U.S. Espionage Act, among other alleged violations. In total he faces charges of 18 federal crimes with a potential punishment of 175 years in a maximum-security prison.

In the initial hearing in February, U.S. government lawyer James Lewis told the court that Assange endangered the lives of informants when in 2010 he illegally obtained and published classified information related to the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The charges include accusations that he helped Manning hack government computers and attain and spread the classified documents.

Why was he on trial in Britain?

The trial was on whether the British government can extradite him based on a 2003 treaty with Washington. Analysts say the terms of the agreement favored the United States, which must mainly prove there is reasonable suspicion that the crimes of which he is accused were committed.

The extradition hearings began in February and were then adjourned until May to allow the sides more time to prepare arguments. In April, the trial date was pushed back to September because of the coronavirus pandemic, as London's lockdown prevented lawyers from reaching the court.

Assange and his lawyers have pointed to this shift as support for their claim that the charges are political retaliation for having published unflattering information about Washington and its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They argue that the case is a precedent-setting assault on freedom of speech and media rights.

Why was Assange not extradited?

Assange's lawyers had argued at trial that their client was in poor mental health, citing evidence that he had written a will and that a razor blade was found hidden in his cell at Belmarsh prison in London.

In her decision on Monday, British Magistrate Vanessa Baraitser agreed with this assessment and pointed to conditions at the Administrative Maximum Facility or AMX, in Florence, Colo., where prisoners can be kept isolated for up to 23 hours a day.

"Faced with the conditions of near total isolation without the protective factors which limited his risk at HMP Belmarsh, I am satisfied the procedures described by the U.S. will not prevent Mr. Assange from finding a way to commit suicide and for this reason I have decided extradition would be oppressive by reason of mental harm and I order his discharge," Baraitser said from the bench, reading from her ruling.

U.S. prosecutors are expected to appeal and take the case to High Court. If that appeal fails, they could also try to take the case to Britain's Supreme Court. It was not immediately clear if Assange will remain jailed during an appeal or if he would be given bail.

Could he be pardoned?

In an article published in the Daily Mail newspaper on Sunday, Assange's partner Stella Moris appealed to Trump to pardon the WikiLeaks activist, arguing that the case against him had been tainted by politics.

After losing November's election, Trump is due to leave the White House in late January. In recent weeks, he has issued pardons to more than a dozen people, including some who were prosecuted after the 2016 election like Paul Manafort, his former campaign manager.

Last year, Assange's legal team said that former congressman Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., an ally of president, told the activist in 2017 that Trump could offer a pardon if Assange said publicly that Russia had nothing to do with the 2016 hack of emails from the Democratic National Committee.

In a statement posted on his website after the allegations came out, Rohrabacher denied offering such an exchange.