By Stephen Smiley and Penny Timms
Julian Assange’s six-year stay in the Ecuadorian embassy in London is drawing to a close, with Ecuador’s President Lenin Moreno signalling progress on a deal with the United Kingdom to evict the Australian-born hacker.
Mr Assange has been living in the embassy in the Knightsbridge neighbourhood of London since 2012, when he first sought asylum there while on bail awaiting a possible extradition to Sweden to face an investigation into rape claims.
The Swedish investigation was dropped in May of last year, but Mr Assange has remained in the embassy building, fearing a possible eventual extradition to the U.S. on yet-to-be-laid spying charges.
But amid reports his eviction is imminent, the ABC’s daily news podcast The Signal has been investigating what will happen when Mr Assange’s time in the embassy runs out.
What has Ecuador said about Julian Assange?
The Ecuadorian Government has made no secret that Mr Assange’s continued residency in its embassy in London has been causing some strain.
In March, Ecuador cut his internet access after he used Twitter from inside the embassy to comment on the Catalonian independence movement in Spain. It was the second time his internet access was suspended: in 2016 he was also pulled offline after his WikiLeaks platform posted leaked emails which proved damaging to the Clinton campaign in the US presidential election.
In the past week, Ecuador’s President has confirmed Mr Assange’s days in the embassy are numbered; speaking to media during an official visit to Spain, Mr Moreno said he didn’t support Mr Assange’s activities.
“I have never been in favour of Mr Assange’s activities,” Mr Moreno said.
Will Mr Assange be evicted from the embassy?
Speaking to the Signal podcast, Pulitzer-prize winning reporter and founder of The Intercept website Glenn Greenwald said he had no doubt Mr Assange’s eviction was imminent.
Greenwald has been in contact with Mr Assange’s lawyers as well as the Ecuadorian government in recent weeks, and tells The Signal Ecuador has been under pressure for months from Spain, the UK and the U.S. over Mr Assange’s situation.
“Lenin Moreno has signalled that he’s ready to finalise an agreement to hand over Assange and withdraw asylum.
“Ironically, I think the one impediment is that Julian was granted Ecuadorian citizenship as a way of trying to solve this problem.
“But that has now become an impediment, because there is a bar in the Ecuadorian-UK extradition treaty about turning citizens over.
There is another impediment as well. Mr. Moreno is insisting that Assange not face the death penalty in any legal action associated with his WikiLeaks activities, which is possible if he is extradited to the U.S. and convicted of espionage.
What happens once Mr Assange is evicted?
While the only live criminal proceeding currently involving Assange is his relatively minor failure to appear in court to face the Swedish extradition hearing, Greenwald believes Mr Assange will still be arrested as soon as he leaves the embassy building.
“He will be arrested on that charge,” Greenwald told The Signal. “And the question then is: what would the British authorities do?
“Maybe they will try to throw the book at him by making it a more serious charge that could put him in prison up to a year. So now they’re thinking about trying to retroactively rescind his citizenship, and they’re just working out these final details.”
Asked when he thought it likely Mr Assange would be evicted, Greenwald estimated it was a matter of weeks.
Will the Trump administration charge Mr Assange with espionage?
To date, Julian Assange has not been charged by the U.S. Government for his leaking of highly sensitive classified information, but under President Donald Trump and his Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, that may be about to change.
Under Mr Assange’s leadership, WikiLeaks has dumped tens of thousands of private and classified files into the public domain, embarrassing both the Bush and Obama administrations, as well as Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
The documents leaked include 400,000 classified files about the war in Iraq; 250,000 sensitive diplomatic cables from the U.S. State Department; and emails held by Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta.
On the campaign trail in 2016, then-Republican candidate Donald Trump heaped praise on WikiLeaks for the Podesta email leak. But since he has been in the White House, Mr Trump and his allies have been more critical of Julian Assange and his organisation.
In April, US Attorney-General Jeff Sessions indicated he would consider laying criminal charges. “We are going to step up our efforts and already are stepping up our efforts on all leaks,” Mr Sessions said.
“We will seek to put some people in jail.”
Would the UK extradite Julian Assange to the U.S.?
If the U.S. were to charge Mr Assange with spying offenses, it would then fall to a court in the United Kingdom to determine whether or not to extradite him across the Atlantic.
Glenn Greenwald believes that decision would be hotly contested, and does not believe Mr Assange’s extradition would be straightforward. And then, there is Mr. Moreno’s condition that Assange not face the death penalty.
“The UK Government itself tends to be very subservient to the United States, but British judges tend to be a bit more independent,” Greenwald told The Signal. “Extradition is supposed to be for murder and rape, violent crimes, financial fraud. So the argument would be that there really is no extradition possible, and I think there’s a good chance that UK judges would accept that.”
Credit: ABC News-Australia, www.abc.net.au