WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will be sentenced Wednesday for breaching a British court order seven years ago, when he took refuge in Ecuador’s London embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden.
The Australian whistleblower, who was arrested on April 11 after Ecuador gave him up, raised a clenched fist as he arrived in a prison van at Southwark Crown Court.
A handful of supporters held up placards saying “Free Julian Assange” ahead of the hearing, in which he could face a 12-month prison sentence. Assange fled to Ecuador’s embassy in 2012 after a British judge ordered his extradition to face Swedish allegations of sexual assault and rape, which he strongly denied.
He claimed the allegations were a pretext to transfer him to the United States, where he feared prosecution over the release by WikiLeaks of millions of classified documents.
There is no longer an active investigation in Sweden and the extradition request has lapsed. However, the 47-year-old is facing a US extradition request, which was only revealed following his dramatic arrest, when he was dragged shouting from the embassy by police. – US hearing on Thursday – Assange appeared in court within hours of his arrest, and a judge found him guilty of breaching his bail conditions. Any sentence handed down on Wednesday is likely to take into account the past few weeks spent in jail.
The biggest concern for his lawyers is the US extradition request. An initial hearing in the case is set for this Thursday. The US indictment charges him with “conspiracy” for working with former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to crack a password stored on Department of Defence computers in March 2010.
Manning passed hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks, exposing US military wrongdoing in the Iraq war and diplomatic secrets about scores of countries around the world. Assange could face up to five years in jail if found guilty, although his team is fighting his extradition and the process could take years. The charge has raised serious concerns among organisations advocating free speech, including politicians such as British opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
WikiLeaks is also back in the news in the United States, over its alleged role in the leak of Hillary Clinton’s emails in 2016 US presidential election. The Swedish claims against Assange date back to 2010, when he was at the centre of a global storm over WikiLeaks’ exposures. The sexual assault claim expired in 2015, but while the rape claim was dropped in 2017, the alleged victim wants the case reopened.
If Stockholm makes a formal extradition request, Britain must decide whether to consider it before or after that of the United States. A group of British lawmakers have urged the Swedish case to take precedence, saying the rights of the alleged victims must not be lost in the political row.