The Justice Department revealed Thursday that it has charged Julian Assange with computer hacking hours after the fugitive founder of WikiLeaks was arrested in London on behalf of a U.S. request to extradite him.
The publisher of state secrets that embarrassed governments around the world was wanted by British authorities for skipping bail in August 2012, while he was under investigation for sexual assault and rape in Sweden. He had spent almost seven years living in the Ecuadorian embassy an effort to avoid extradition to the U.S.
The DOJ said hours after Assange’s arrest at 10.15 a.m. (5:15 a.m. ET) that it had sought his extradition in connection with a federal charge of “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion for agreeing to break a password to a classified U.S. government computer.”
The indictment accuses Assange of collaborating with Chelsea Manning in 2010 over the leaking and publication of classified military files. If convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
Assange, 47, who styles himself as WikiLeaks’ editor-in-chief, says that the U.S. is seeking to infringe his journalistic freedoms. According to the indictment, he went beyond the role of a traditional journalist when he helped Manning crack a password that gave her access to hundreds of thousands of secret files.
Appearing at Westminster Magistrates’ court on Thursday afternoon, Assange was found guilty of failing to surrender to police on June 29, 2012. He will now be sent to Crown Court to be sentenced, where more serious crimes are heard as magistrates can only impose prison sentences of up to six months. Earlier in the hearing Assange had pleaded not guilty to this charge.
A source directly familiar with the situation told NBC News that the U.S. is making plans to seek Assange’s extradition in connection with sealed federal charges filed in the Eastern District of Virginia.
Dramatic footage shot by the Ruptly news agency showed the moments a bedraggled Assange was hauled out of the Ecuadorian embassy by seven men. As he was bundled into a waiting police van, Assange shouted: “You must resist. You can resist … the U.K. must resist.”
Meanwhile, Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno said in a video message that Assange had his diplomatic asylum withdrawn due to “repeatedly violating international conventions.”
Moreno added that he asked the U.K. not to extradite Assange “to a country where he could face torture or the death penalty.” In a subsequent statement, Ecuador’s foreign minister said that the U.K. had given its assurance that Assange would not be sent to a country where he’d face the death penalty or torture.
Alan Duncan, a British government minister, welcomed Assange’s eviction and said it was the result of “extensive dialogue” between the U.K. and Ecuador.
Barry J. Pollack, Assange’s U.S.-based attorney, said in a statement: “It is bitterly disappointing that a country would allow someone to whom it has extended citizenship and asylum to be arrested in its embassy.”
Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia’s foreign ministry, also criticized Assange’s arrest.
“The hand of ‘democracy’ squeezes the throat of freedom,” she said in a Facebook post.
WikiLeaks said in a tweet that Assange’s political asylum had been “illegally terminated in violation of international law.”
The group has repeatedly claimed that the DOJ is building a criminal case centered on the leaking of Democratic emails hacked by the Russians in the 2016 election.
President Donald Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, told a congressional hearing in February that former Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone was in contact with Assange before WikiLeaks released leaked emails from the Democratic National Committee.
Assange has always maintained that the source of the leaks was not Russia, contrary to the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies.
Special counsel Robert Mueller recently concluded his probe into Russian electoral interference and the Trump campaign.
Assange, who founded WikiLeaks in 2006, first made news in 2010 with the publication of leaked information provided by Chelsea Manning, a former U.S. Army intelligence analyst and self-described whistleblower.
These included a video of a U.S. military helicopter fatally shooting people in Iraq, and thousands of classified military logs revealing sensitive information about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, thought to be the biggest leaks in U.S. military history.
Manning last month refused to testify before a federal grand jury looking into the release of documents to WikiLeaks.
In November 2010, the Swedish government issued an international arrest warrant for Assange in connection with allegations of sexual assault and rape from two women. Assange, who has denied the allegations, surrendered to British police the following month and was released on bail — whereupon he fled, breaking the terms of his bond agreement.
Assange’s lawyers have often warned that he would be handed over to U.S. prosecutors because of WikiLeaks’ publication of classified documents. Rafael Correa, then the president of Ecuador, granted him asylum in 2012.
Sweden dropped its investigation into Assange in 2017. However, under Swedish law it is possible he could still be arrested should he return to the country before the statute of limitation expires in August 2020.
Elisabeth Massi Fritz, lawyer for one of Assange’s accusers, said on Thursday that she would “do everything we possibly can” to get police to reopen the investigation “so that Assange can be extradited to Sweden and prosecuted for rape.”
Sweden’s chief prosecutor, Ingrid Isgren, confirmed on Thursday that that the “preliminary investigation” into Assange could be resumed as long as he goes to Sweden before the 2020 deadline.
Assange, a native of Australia, became an Ecuadorian citizen last year, even though his relations with his hosts had soured years ago.
In 2016, the Ecuadorian government cut off his access to the internet in the embassy after WikiLeaks published a trove of emails from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. The government said it was trying to make sure he couldn’t interfere in the affairs of other countries.