LONDON (Reuters) – WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was arrested by British police and carried out of the Ecuadorean embassy on Thursday after his South American hosts abruptly revoked his seven-year asylum, paving the way for his extradition to the United States.
The United States alleged Assange engaged in a 2010 conspiracy with Chelsea Manning, who served seven years in military prison for leaking classified data, and charged him with conspiracy to commit computer intrusion with a maximum penalty of five years.
An agitated, frail-looking Assange with white hair and a white beard was carried head first out of the embassy shortly after 0900 GMT by at least seven men to a waiting police van.
“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,” Prime Minister Theresa May told parliament to cheers and cries of “Hear, hear!” from lawmakers.
Police said they arrested Assange, 47, after being invited into the embassy following the Ecuadorean government’s withdrawal of asylum.
The arrests, after nearly seven years holed up in a few cramped rooms at the embassy, mark one of the most peculiar turns in a tumultuous life that has transformed the Australian programmer into a rebel wanted by the United States.
Assange’s supporters said Ecuador had betrayed him at the behest of Washington, that the termination of his asylum was illegal and that they feared he would ultimately end up on trial in the United States.
To some, Assange is a hero for exposing what supporters cast as abuse of power by modern states and for championing free speech. But to others, he is a dangerous rebel who has undermined US security.
Assange gave a thumbs up in handcuffs as he was taken from a police station, and he later appeared in Westminster Magistrates’ Court.
WikiLeaks angered Washington by publishing hundreds of thousands of secret US diplomatic cables that laid bare often highly critical US appraisals of world leaders, from Russian President Vladimir Putin to members of the Saudi royal family.
Assange made international headlines in early 2010 when WikiLeaks published a classified US military video showing a 2007 attack by Apache helicopters in Baghdad that killed a dozen people, including two Reuters news staff.
It was not immediately clear what specifically prompted Ecuador to end Assange’s stay in the embassy, or the extent of the diplomacy that led to the arrest. The Kremlin said it hoped his rights would not be violated.
YEARS OF SOLITUDE
Assange in June 2012 took refuge in Ecuador’s London embassy, behind the luxury department store Harrods, to avoid being extradited to Sweden, where authorities wanted to question him as part of a sexual assault investigation.
Sweden dropped that investigation in 2017, but Assange was arrested on Thursday for breaking the rules of his original bail in London.
Friends of Assange said the solitude he had experienced in the embassy had hurt him most.
“It was a miserable existence and I could see it was a strain on him, but a strain he managed rather well,” said Vaughan Smith, a friend who visited Assange. “The thing that was most difficult for Julian was the solitude.”
“He was very tough, but the last year in particular was very difficult. He was constantly being surveilled and spied upon. There was no privacy for him.”
WikiLeaks said Ecuador had illegally terminated his political asylum in violation of international law.
“Assange’s critics may cheer, but this is a dark moment for press freedom,” said Edward Snowden, a former US National Security Agency contractor who fled to Moscow after revealing massive US intelligence gathering.
Assange’s relationship with his hosts collapsed after Ecuador accused him of leaking information about President Lenin Moreno’s personal life.
Moreno said Assange’s diplomatic asylum status had been cancelled for repeated violation of conventions. He said he had asked Britain to guarantee that Assange would not be extradited to any country where he might face torture or the death penalty.
“The British government has confirmed it in writing,” Moreno said. “The asylum of Mr Assange is unsustainable and no longer viable.”
Due to a clerical error, a document filed by federal prosecutors in Virginia in an unrelated 2018 investigation revealed that Assange had secretly been indicted by US authorities.
Prosecutors have acknowledged the authenticity of the document but have refused to confirm or deny that Assange has been criminally charged under US federal law.
Britain said no man was above the law.
“Julian Assange is no hero, he has hidden from the truth for years and years,” British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said.
“It’s not so much Julian Assange being held hostage in the Ecuadorean embassy, it’s actually Julian Assange holding the Ecuadorean embassy hostage in a situation that was absolutely intolerable for them.”
A Swedish lawyer representing the alleged rape victim said she would push to have prosecutors reopen the investigation.
But Sven-Erik Alhem, a retired senior prosecutor and chairman of NGO Victim Support Sweden, said he thought that may be difficult.
“I’d think it would be fairly uphill to reopen the investigation, mainly because testimonies usually weaken with time and it’s now been 10 years. On top of that, the statute of limitation is drawing near,” he said.
(By Guy Faulconbridge, Kate Holton and Costas Pitas; Editing by Hugh Lawson)