Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
12 April 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 1:37pm

The arrest of Julian Assange has sparked a domestic political row

By Eleni Courea

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.  

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

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. 

Content from our partners
How do we secure the hybrid office?
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them