Political Prisoner or Criminal? The Life and Indictment of Julian Assange
On April 11, 2019, British police removed Julian Assange from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, subsequently arresting him. Since that date, he has been detained in Belmarsh Prison, a maximum-security facility designed to hold terrorists and violent criminals. Assange is being held not because he has been convicted of any crime, but to facilitate a US extradition request that several human rights groups label as a disastrous assault on the freedom of the press.
Julian Assange was born July 3, 1971, in Townsville, Queensland, Australia. By the age of 16, Assange had become an accomplished hacker and adopted the alias Mendax, meaning noble liar. Operating under a self-imposed code of ethics, Julian Assange did not deliberately damage systems or data he hacked, but rather was solely concerned with sharing information. He was described by The Guardian as Australia’s “most famous ethical hacker,” having hacked thousands of systems and organizations when he was young, including the Pentagon.
Assange joined forces with two other hackers, working as part of the International Subversives hacking group. The group is believed to have been behind hacking attacks on NASA in 1989, although the allegation has never been established. In 1991, the group began targeting MILNET, a secret network operated by the US military. It was on this network that Assange stumbled on reports that suggested the US military was hacking other government departments.
After discovering a backdoor, Assange wrote a program called Sycophant, enabling the group to conduct what he himself described as “massive attacks on the US military.” The International Subversives hacked networks including the Department of Defense, Stanford Research Institute, NASA, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Australian National University, and the Australian Police Force.
In September 1991, Julian Assange was caught hacking a master terminal of a Canadian telecommunications company known as Nortel. Another member of the International Subversives hacking group turned himself in and revealed Assange’s identity. After his phone line was tapped and his home was raided, Julian Assange was eventually charged with 31 counts of hacking. However, after striking a plea deal with Australian authorities, he avoided the 10-year prison sentence. He was instead ordered to pay a fine and released on a good behavior bond.
Assange subsequently provided technical support and advice to the Victoria Police Child Exploitation Unit, helping them to prosecute individuals responsible for creating, possessing, and trafficking in child pornography. After becoming a successful computer security consultant, Assange founded Wikileaks in 2006, which was essentially created to serve as a clearinghouse for classified or sensitive information.
The site’s first publication, which was posted in December 2006, included a message from a Somali rebel leader advocating the use of hired gunmen to assassinate government officials. Wikileaks went on to publish several scoops relating to the US military, including classified and politically sensitive information. The website also published internal documents from the Scientology movement and the secret membership roster of the far-right British National Party. The US government subsequently launched a criminal investigation into WikiLeaks’s activities.
Arrest Warrant, Extradition, and Asylum
Unexpectedly, Sweden issued a European arrest warrant for Julian Assange in November 2010 over allegations of sexual misconduct. Assange maintained that the warrant was simply a pretext facilitating his extradition to the United States over his role in the publication of classified US military documents via WikiLeaks. Assange lost his appeal against extradition to Sweden, but subsequently breached his bail conditions, taking refuge in the Embassy of Ecuador in London, where he remained from June 2012 to April 2019 after having been granted political asylum.
Over time, relations between Julian Assange and Embassy staff became deeply strained, and even adversarial. The New York Times quoted a letter from the Ecuadorian Ambassador to the British Foreign Ministry in 2014, outlining growing resentment between diplomats and Assange over his behavior, which purportedly included riding a skateboard and playing soccer indoors, damaging “floors, walls, and doors” according to the Ambassador. Eventually in April 2019 a heavily bearded, disheveled Assange was dragged from the building and transferred to Belmarsh Prison.
In May 2019, a federal grand jury returned an 18-count indictment against Julian Assange, describing WikiLeaks’s action in publishing classified information as one of the “largest compromises of classified information” in American history. With the US Justice Department maintaining that Assange’s actions risked serious harm to US national security to the benefit of the country’s adversaries, the WikiLeaks founder faces a staggering 175-year prison sentence if tried and convicted of all the charges against him.
Julian Assange’s status as a pollical refugee has been upheld repeatedly by several international human rights bodies, including the United Nations. He has now spent more than 1,460 days in Belmarsh Prison without charge. Having had a stroke and contracted COVID-19, medical experts have publicly warned that his health has declined to the point where he may die in prison. Nevertheless, the British courts continue to reject his bail applications and are proceeding with the US extradition request.