A huge row is brewing after Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was arrested yesterday at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he has lived for the past seven years. The government of Ecuador revoked his asylum and invited police officers to take him away from its premises in Knightsbridge. He was found guilty of failing to surrender to court.
Assange now faces extradition to United States for conspiracy to commit computer intrusion, over the leaks of millions of classified government documents. His colleagues at Wikileaks claim he could face the death penalty, but Washington insists that the computer hacking charge against him carries a maximum of five years. Further charges could yet be brought.
It sets the scene for a political battle, as while Theresa May has welcomed Assange’s arrest, Jeremy Corbyn says his extradition “for exposing evidence of atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan should be opposed”. On the Today programme, shadow home secretary Diane Abbott said human rights issues were potentially at play. She invoked the case of Gary McKinnon, who hacked into US computers but whose extradition was blocked on human rights grounds by May in 2012, when the prime minister was home secretary.
What could complicate things further is the prospect of a second extradition request from Sweden. Assange originally took refuge at the Ecuadorian embassy because he was wanted in Sweden on rape charges, which are currently inactive. The alleged victim’s lawyer is now urging Swedish prosecutors to reopen the case.
Abbott said that if the Swedish government comes forward with charges, “Assange should face the criminal justice system”. But Labour’s position could yet change if it becomes clear that Sweden would go on to extradite Assange to the US. While he was working at the Guardian in 2012, Corbyn’s current director of communications Seumas Milne wrote that the British and Swedish governments should work together to ensure Assange faces justice for the sexual assault allegations, while blocking his extradition for any Wikileaks-related offence to the US.
However things play out, the case is sure to cause friction within Labour. Jess Phillips tweeted last night that “the fact that Assange has evaded charges of sexual violence and skipped bail should be opposed by the Labour Party. I’m sure it is, I’d like to hear it.” She will not be the only MP who is critical of the frontbench’s response.