LONDON (Reuters) – British police dragged WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange out of Ecuadors embassy on Thursday after his seven-year asylum was revoked, paving the way for his extradition to the United States for one of the biggest ever leaks of classified information.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 London embassy and into a waiting police van, U.S. officials announced he had been charged with a single count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion.
As he was being hauled out of the embassy in a dramatic scene shortly after 0900 GMT after Ecuador terminated his asylum, the Australian-born Assange was heard shouting, “This is unlawful, Im 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 the website released emails that U.S. 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. Its not my thing,” 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.
Judge Michael Snow called Assange, wearing a black jacket and black shirt, a “narcissist who cannot get beyond his own selfish interests” and convicted him of skipping bail. Sentencing will be at a later date.
Police said they arrested Assange, 47, after being invited into the embassy following Ecuadors withdrawal of asylum. He took refuge there in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden over a sexual assault investigation that was later dropped.
Assange was carried out of the building – located behind the luxury department store Harrods – carrying a copy of Gore Vidals “History of The National Security State”, which he continued reading in court.
In Washington, the U.S. 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 U.S. military reports about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and American diplomatic communications. Legal experts said more U.S. charges could be coming.
The indictment was made secretly in March 2018 and unsealed on Thursday. He faces up to five years in prison if convicted, with legal experts saying more charges were possible.
Ecuador suspended Julian Assanges citizenship and accused him and others at WikiLeaks of collaborating in attempts to destabilise the Andean nations government.
FRICTION WITH ECUADOR
Assange was offered refuge in 2012 by Ecuadors then-president Rafael Correa, but his relationship with Ecuador soured under Correas successor Lenin Moreno, who has said Assange violated the terms of his asylum. Ecuador accused Assange of leaking information about Morenos personal life.
Lawyers for Assange said he may risk torture and his life would be in danger if he were to be extradited to the United States.
The arrest, after 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 United States.
“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,” May said.
Ecuadors foreign minister said his country was not aware of any active extradition requests for Assange before it terminated his asylum. Supporters of Assange said Ecuador had betrayed him at the behest of Washington, illegally ended his asylum and engineered a dark moment for press freedom.
“Journalists around the world should be deeply troubled by these unprecedented criminal charges,” Barry Pollack, a lawyer for Assange, said in a statement reacting to the U.S. 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 U.S. security, and dispute that he is a journalist.
“Under the guise of transparency, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks have effectively acted as an arm of the Russian intelligence services for years,” U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, a Republican, said. “Hopefully, he will now face justice.”
The Kremlin said it hoped Assanges rights would not be violated.
WikiLeaks angered Washington by publishing hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. diplomatic cables that laid bare critical U.S. appraisals of world leaders, from Russian President Vladimir Putin to members of the Saudi royal family.
Assange made international headlines in 2010 when WikiLeaks published a classified U.S. military video showing a 2007 attack by Apache helicopters in Baghdad that killed a dozen people, including two Reuters news staff.
Assanges U.S. 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 U.S. military reports about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the diplomatic communications – disclosures that embarrassed the United States and strained relations with allies.
The Justice Department said Assange was arrested under an extradition treaty between the United States and Britain.
The indictment said Assange in March 2010 engaged in a conspiracy to assist Manning, formerly named Bradley Manning, in cracking a password stored on U.S. Department of Defense computers connected to a U.S. government network used for classified documents and communications.
Mannings lawyers demanded the release of the former intelligence analyst, jailed last month after being held in contempt by a judge in Virginia for refusing to testifyRead More