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Wikileaks Founder: Indictment and Arrest

 In April 2019, Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange has been arrested at the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Assange took refuge in the embassy in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden over a sexual assault case that has since been dropped.

At Westminster Magistrates’ Court, he was found guilty of failing to surrender to the court. He now faces US federal conspiracy charges related to one of the largest ever leaks of government secrets.

He faces up to five years in US prison if convicted on the charges of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion.

Assange’s lawyer Jennifer Robinson said they would be fighting the extradition request. She said it set a “dangerous precedent” where any journalist could face US charges for “publishing truthful information about the United States”.

She said she had visited Assange in the police cells where he thanked supporters and said: “I told you so.”

Assange had predicted that he would face extradition to the US if he left the embassy.

Why does the US government want to extradite Assange?

Assange set up Wikileaks in 2006 with the aim of obtaining and publishing confidential documents and images.

The organisation hit the headlines four years later when it released footage of US soldiers killing civilians from a helicopter in Iraq.

Former US intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning was arrested in 2010 for disclosing more than 700,000 confidential documents, videos and diplomatic cables to the anti-secrecy website.

She said she only did so to spark debates about foreign policy, but US officials said the leak put lives at risk.

She was found guilty by a court-martial in 2013 of charges including espionage. However, her jail sentence was later commuted.

Manning was recently jailed for refusing to testify before an investigation into Wikileaks’ role in revealing the secret files.

What are the US charges against him?

The indictment against Assange, issued last year in the state of Virginia, alleges that he conspired in 2010 with Manning to access classified information on Department of Defense computers. He faces up to five years in jail.

Manning downloaded four databases from US departments and agencies between January and May 2010, the indictment says. This information, much of which was classified, was provided to Wikileaks.

The US Justice Department described it as “one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States”.

Cracking a password stored on the computers, the indictment alleges, would have allowed Manning to log on to them in such a way as to make it harder for investigators to determine the source of the disclosures. It is unclear whether the password was actually broken.

Correspondents say the narrowness of the charge seems intended to avoid falling foul of the US Constitution’s First Amendment guarantee of freedom of the press.

Julian’s arrest a risk to press freedom

Freedom of speech advocates including US whistleblower Edward Snowden said that an extradition over the leaks constituted a risk to press freedom.

Journalists and free speech advocates worry that the “computer intrusion” charge could open the door for the government to go after news publications. As the Columbia Journalism Review put it:

“Going forward, journalists will need to be vigilant. Assange’s case is specific, but the way the Justice Department responds to his arrest could have serious implications for all of us.”

Ben Wizner of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project got more specific:

“Any prosecution by the United States of Mr. Assange for Wikileaks’ publishing operations would be unprecedented and unconstitutional and would open the door to criminal investigations of other news organizations. Moreover, prosecuting a foreign publisher for violating U.S. secrecy laws would set an especially dangerous precedent for U.S. journalists, who routinely violate foreign secrecy laws to deliver information vital to the public’s interest.”

The charges specifically relate to breaking into a government computer network, not the act of publishing. However, as Freedom of the Press Foundation Executive Director Trevor Timm points out, the specifics of the case concern all journalistic activities.

“While the Trump administration has so far not attempted to explicitly declare the act of publishing illegal, a core part of its argument would criminalize many common journalist-source interactions that reporters rely on all the time,” Timms said. “Requesting more documents from a source, using an encrypted chat messenger, or trying to keep a source’s identity anonymous are not crimes; they are vital to the journalistic process.”

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