24/02/2020 14:30 GMT | Updated 24/02/2020 14:39 GMT

Why Julian Assange Is In Court After Nearly A Decade In Exile

The WikiLeaks founder is no longer being pursued over rape allegations, but could still be extradited to the US. Here's what's happened so far, and why it's so controversial.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange appeared in court on Monday for the first day of an extradition hearing that could see him sent to the US to face espionage charges.

Assange has been in the UK since 2010. For seven years, he claimed asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy, but he was arrested in April.

Controversially, he remains in custody. This is why. 

Who is Julian Assange, and what is WikiLeaks?

Assange, 48, from Townsville, Australia, founded the website WikiLeaks in 2006. 

The organisation describes itself as “a multi-national media organi[s]ation and associated library” which “specialises in the analysis and publication of large datasets of censored or otherwise restricted official materials involving war, spying and corruption”.

It is stated on the website that WikiLeaks has published more than 10m documents and associated analysis – the best known being the trove of documents published in 2010 that consisted of confidential documents from the US military.

Assange is accused of working with the former US army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to leak the documents.

The leak made headlines worldwide when it revealed footage that showed US soldiers shooting 18 civilians dead from a helicopter in Iraq.

Prior to WikiLeaks, Assange and a friend had been accused of hacking activities as long ago as 1995 – for which he was fined several thousand Australian dollars and managed to avoid a prison term on the condition that he did not reoffend.

He went on to work as a researcher, mostly into the subversive elements of the early internet, and undertook a course in physics and maths at Melbourne University.

Why is he in prison now?

In the simplest terms, Assange is currently being held on remand – that is, awaiting trial – in Belmarsh prison, where he has been since September 2019.

But he was in fact already in jail, having just finished a 50-week sentence for breaching bail conditions by claiming refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

Assange was first arrested in the UK back in 2010, when Sweden issued an international arrest warrant because two women had made allegations of rape and sexual assault. He has always claimed that sex in both cases was consensual. 

He was released on bail as the investigation continued. But fearing that Sweden could extradite him to the US if he entered the justice system, he sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London – where he would remain for seven years. 

The preliminary rape investigation was dropped in 2017 because Swedish authorities were unable to proceed for as long as Assange remained inside the embassy. It was reopened again in May 2019 when Ecuador’s government abruptly withdrew his asylum status. 

But just six months later, the sexual assault and rape claims against Assange were dropped, with Sweden’s deputy chief prosecutor Eva-Marie Persson saying the memories of witnesses had faded almost a decade on – even though the complainant’s evidence was still deemed credible and reliable.

Assange was sentenced to 50 weeks in prison for breaking his bail conditions and was due to be released on September 22, but was told he would be kept in custody ahead of a US extradition hearing due to concerns about him absconding once again. Which brings us more or less up to date, as the hearing began on Monday.

What is this hearing about?

Assange is appearing at Woolwich Crown Court on Monday for the start of his extradition hearing, during which lawyers for the US authorities will put forward their arguments for why he should be sent to America. It is pretty much the scenario he had tried for so long to avoid while seeking refuge in the embassy. 

The US wants to try Assange on espionage charges – 18 in total – relating to the publication of the US documents in 2010. These charges carry a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison.

Monday’s appearance marks the start of a week of legal arguments, before the hearing is adjourned. Three weeks of evidence are then scheduled to begin on May 18. 

The decision, which is not expected until months later, is likely to be appealed against by the losing side, whatever the outcome.

Why is his extradition so controversial? 

US authorities claim the information published by WikiLeaks in 2010 put American lives in danger. But those in support of Assange say he is a journalist who was working in the public interest and that his extradition would contradict both free speech rights and freedom of the press. 

Hundreds of people – including Assange’s father and celebrities such as designer Vivienne Westwood and Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters – gathered in central London on Saturday to demand his release. 

More than 40 international legal experts have written to prime minister Boris Johnson demanding the “rule of law be upheld”, claiming he has not had proper access to his legal team.

The letter was handed in to 10 Downing Street on Saturday and also urged the British legal community to act “urgently” to secure Assange’s release.

Supporters of the WikiLeaks founder also appeared outside the court in Woolwich on Monday morning with placards bearing the messages: “Don’t shoot the messenger, free Assange” and: “Free Julian Assange, Nobel Peace Prize nominee.”

One of his supporters, Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis, said Assange was in a “very dark place” due to spending more than 20 hours a day in solitary confinement, and called for the extradition to be stopped “in the interests of 300 years of modernity, 300 years of trying to establish human rights and civil liberties in the west and around the world”.

Didn’t Donald Trump offer to pardon him, anyway? 

The suggestion that Trump offered to pardon Assange first emerged during a hearing at Westminster Magistrates’ Court on February 19. 

Assange’s barrister Edward Fitzgerald QC highlighted evidence alleging former US Republican congressman Dana Rohrabacher had been to see Assange in August 2017, while he was still in the Ecuadorian embassy.

Fitzgerald said Assange was told Trump would offer a pardon – if Assange agreed to say that Russia had not been involved in the leak of Democratic National Committee emails.

Unsurprisingly, almost as soon as the claims were heard, they were strongly refuted by the White House, with press secretary Stephanie Grisham telling reporters: “This is absolutely and completely false.”

The president “barely knows Dana Rohrabacher other than he’s an ex-congressman. He’s never spoken to him on this subject or almost any subject,” she said.

“It is a complete fabrication and a total lie. This is probably another never-ending hoax and total lie from the DNC.”