US charges Julian Assange after London arrest ends seven years holed up in Ecuador embassy

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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in a police van after being arrested by British police in London, Britain on April 11, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (REUTERS) - British police dragged WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange out of Ecuador's embassy on Thursday (April 11) after his seven-year asylum was revoked, paving the way for his extradition to the United States for one of the biggest ever leaks of classified information.

Hours after the frail-looking Assange, with white hair and a long beard, was carried head-first by at least seven men out of the embassy in London and into a waiting police van, US officials announced he had been charged with conspiracy to commit computer intrusion.

As he was being hauled out of the embassy in a dramatic scene shortly after 9am GMT (5pm Singapore time), the Australian-born Assange was heard shouting: "This is unlawful, I'm not leaving."

British Prime Minister Theresa May hailed the news in Parliament, to cheers and cries of "Hear, hear!" from lawmakers.

But in Washington, President Donald Trump, who in 2016 said "I love WikiLeaks" after it released e-mails that US authorities have said were hacked by Russia to harm his election opponent Hillary Clinton, told reporters he had no opinion on the charges against Assange.

"I know nothing about WikiLeaks. It's not my thing," Mr Trump said.

Assange gave a thumbs up in handcuffs as he was taken from a police station to a London court, where he pronounced himself not guilty of failing to surrender in 2012. District judge Michael Snow called Assange a "narcissist" and convicted him of skipping bail. Sentencing will be at a later date.

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Police said they arrested Assange, 47, after being invited into the embassy following the Ecuadorean government's withdrawal of asylum. Assange was carried out of the building carrying a copy of Gore Vidal's History Of The National Security State, which he continued reading in court.

In Washington, the US Justice Department said Assange was charged with conspiring with former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to gain access to a government computer as part of a 2010 leak by WikiLeaks of hundreds of thousands of US military reports about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and American diplomatic communications.

The indictment was made secretly last year and unsealed on Thursday. He faces up to five years in prison if convicted, with legal experts saying more charges were possible.

Ecuador suspended Assange's citizenship and accused him and others at WikiLeaks of collaborating in attempts to destabilise the Andean nation's government, after years of offering him shelter.

Lawyers for Assange said he may risk torture and his life would be in danger if he were to be extradited to the US.

The arrest, after nearly seven years holed up in a few cramped rooms at the embassy, represented one of the most sensational turns in a tumultuous life that has transformed the computer programmer into a fugitive wanted by the US.

"The whole House will welcome the news this morning that the Metropolitan Police have arrested Julian Assange, arrested for breach of bail after nearly seven years in the Ecuadorean embassy," Mrs May said.

Supporters of Assange said Ecuador had betrayed him at the behest of Washington, that the ending of his asylum was illegal and that it marked a dark moment for press freedom.

"Journalists around the world should be deeply troubled by these unprecedented criminal charges," Mr Barry Pollack, a lawyer for Assange, said in a statement reacting to the US indictment.

His admirers have hailed Assange as a hero for exposing what they describe as abuse of power by modern states and for championing free speech. His detractors have painted him as a dangerous figure complicit in Russian efforts to undermine the West and US security.

WikiLeaks angered Washington by publishing hundreds of thousands of secret US diplomatic cables that laid bare critical US appraisals of world leaders, from Russian President Vladimir Putin to members of the Saudi royal family.

Assange made international headlines in early 2010 when WikiLeaks published a classified US military video showing a 2007 attack by Apache helicopters in Baghdad that killed a dozen people, including two Reuters news staff.

The Kremlin said it hoped his rights would not be violated.

United States

Assange's US indictment arose from a long-running criminal investigation dating back to the administration of former president Barack Obama. It was triggered in part by WikiLeaks' publication in 2010 of US military reports about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the diplomatic communications - disclosures that embarrassed the United States and strained relations with allies.

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The Justice Department said Assange was arrested under an extradition treaty between the US and Britain.

The indictment said that in March 2010, Assange engaged in a conspiracy to assist Manning in cracking a password stored on US Department of Defence computers connected to the Secret Internet Protocol Network, a US government network used for classified documents and communications.

Assange in June 2012 took refuge in Ecuador's embassy, located behind the luxury department store Harrods, to avoid being extradited to Sweden, where the authorities wanted to question him as part of a sexual assault investigation. Sweden dropped that probe in 2017, but Assange was arrested for breaking the rules of his bail in London relating to the case.

A Swedish lawyer representing the alleged rape victim said she would push to have prosecutors reopen the case, but a retired senior prosecutor and chairman of non-governmental organisation Victim Support Sweden said that may be difficult.

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Britain said no person was above the law.

"Julian Assange is no hero, he has hidden from the truth for years and years," British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said.

"It's not so much Julian Assange being held hostage in the Ecuadorean embassy, it's actually Julian Assange holding the Ecuadorean embassy hostage in a situation that was absolutely intolerable for them."

Years of solitude

Friends of Assange said the solitude he had experienced in the embassy had hurt him most.

"It was a miserable existence and I could see it was a strain on him, but a strain he managed rather well," said Mr Vaughan Smith, a friend who had visited Assange.

"The thing that was most difficult for Julian was the solitude.

"He was very tough, but the last year in particular was very difficult. He was constantly being surveilled and spied upon. There was no privacy for him," Mr Smith said.

Assange founded WikiLeaks in 2006. The website published secret official information, infuriating the US and other countries. WikiLeaks said Ecuador had illegally terminated his political asylum in violation of international law.

"Assange's critics may cheer, but this is a dark moment for press freedom," said Edward Snowden, a former US National Security Agency contractor who fled to Moscow after revealing massive US intelligence gathering.

WikiLeaks published e-mails in 2016 damaging to Democratic US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton that a US special counsel and American intelligence agencies have said were stolen by Russia in a bid to boost Republican Donald Trump's candidacy.

Assange was offered refuge in 2012 by Ecuador's then-president Rafael Correa, but his relationship with Ecuador has soured under Mr Correa's successor Mr Lenin Moreno, who has said Assange violated the terms of his asylum. Ecuador accused him of leaking information about Mr Moreno's personal life.

Mr Moreno said he asked Britain to guarantee that Assange would not be extradited to any country where he might face torture or the death penalty.

"The asylum of Mr Assange is unsustainable and no longer viable," Mr Moreno said.

Assange and WikiLeaks have intervened in Ecuadorean affairs and people close to him, including two Russian hackers, are living in Ecuador, Interior Minister Maria Paula Romo told reporters in Quito.

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