LONDON — The plush neighborhood of Knightsbridge, a high-rent hub of fancy retail and discreet diplomats, awoke Friday with one international curiosity fewer in its midst.
Julian Assange, the Australian bad boy and founder of WikiLeaks, had been dragged Thursday from the Ecuadoran Embassy, where he had entertained the likes of Lady Gaga and Pamela Anderson in the Victorian redbrick building a stone’s throw from the luxury department store Harrods. He was arrested to face a hacking charge in the United States.
“We heard the helicopter overhead,” said James Smith, a local real estate agent. The scene outside the embassy was the dramatic climax of a seven-year diplomatic stalemate as Ecuador revoked the anti-secrecy crusader’s asylum and turned him over to British authorities.
Gone now are the demonstrators with “Free Assange” banners. But life goes on in Knightsbridge, Smith said. It is not as if residents would see their notorious neighbor, who had holed up in the embassy since 2012. From his corner room, where he lived with his Internet-star cat and used a treadmill to stay in shape, Assange had become a fading fascination.
But his coming legal battle puts him back in the spotlight.
Half of Britons had no opinion on Ecuador’s decision to get rid of him, according to a YouGov poll. More than a third supported the move, and only 1 in 7 wanted him to stay.
Now that Assange has lost his bolt-hole in Knightsbridge, the 47-year-old will battle extradition from a British jail. After his arrest Thursday, a judge swiftly convicted him of skipping bail in 2012, and he faces up to a year in prison for that offense.
U.S. prosecutors seek his extradition to face a federal charge of conspiring to hack into a Defense Department computer in 2010. His attorney, Jennifer Robinson, said his arrest sets a “dangerous precedent” for press freedoms.
There are many questions. How long will the extradition process take? It is likely to last years. Will Assange remain in prison as his case proceeds? Almost certainly. He will first be sentenced — probably six months to one year — for jumping bail. Finally, what about the cat? The Ecuadoran Embassy has not revealed what happened to the pet. An Italian newspaper suggested it was given to a friend months ago.
The issue of Assange’s potential extradition instantly exposed divisions within British politics, already riven by the country’s exit from the European Union in a process known as Brexit.
Prime Minister Theresa May said the arrest showed that “no one is above the law,” while Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, said the government should oppose Assange’s extradition. The left-wing leader said Assange was being targeted “for exposing evidence of atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Labour’s spokeswoman for domestic affairs, Diane Abbott, said the request should be blocked on human rights grounds. She told the BBC that the U.S. government’s true motivation for prosecuting Assange was its “embarrassment of the things he’s revealed about the American military and security services.”
Right-wing politician Nigel Farage, an ideological ally of President Trump’s, told the broadcaster on Friday that he had visited Assange once in the embassy, swatting away the suggestion that he was a conduit between Trump and WikiLeaks. The American president, who once said he loved WikiLeaks, professed Thursday to “know nothing” about the group.
“He’s going to be extradited, and that’s the end of it,” Farage said.
Assange’s fight against extradition could keep him jailed in Britain for years as the case winds its way through legal challenges in multiple courts, experts said.
Because of the seriousness of the charge and the fact that Assange has skipped bail once — when Sweden sought his extradition to answer allegations of sex crimes during a visit there — he is likely do battle from a prison cell.
His new life will not be as comfortable as the previous years in the Ecuadoran Embassy, where he was free to drink wine, skateboard down the halls and receive guests. Until his exasperated hosts cut off his access to the Internet, Assange had been all over social media. In British prisons, mobile phones are prohibited and Internet access is highly restricted.
Assange’s lawyers vow to fight the extradition order, from the Magistrates’ Court to the Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court — and possibly to the European Court of Human Rights.
Even if Britain manages to leave the E.U., Brexit will almost certainly include a lengthy transition period, which could put Assange in front of European judges.
“It will be some years before a final decision is reached — at least a year and probably longer,” said Amy Jeffress, a former Justice Department legal attache in London. “My over and under would be three years.”
“These cases can become very political in the U.K.,” she said
One high-profile terrorism case dragged on for 13 years before the defendant was finally extradited to the United States. Assange’s previous battle against extradition to Sweden took 18 months.
Daniel Sternberg, a barrister specializing in extradition law at Temple Garden Chambers in London, said he expects Assange to mount a vigorous challenge, pressing “every conceivable point.”
He said the most relevant arguments would contest the forum of prosecution — reasoning that Assange’s physical location when he engaged in the conduct of which he stands accused is more relevant than the country targeted by his activities.
Sternberg also said Assange’s legal team is likely to raise fears of human rights violations, should the WikiLeaks founder be destined for the federal “supermax” prison, where some inmates spend 23 hours a day alone in a 7-by-12-foot concrete cell.
“Although this indictment is relatively limited, his lawyers might argue that there could be other charges waiting in the wings,” Sternberg said.
Before the extradition order can move forward, Assange must first serve the sentence he was handed for failing to surrender to British authorities. His legal team could choose to expedite the extradition proceedings, but experts said that was unlikely.
From his British prison cell, Assange would have limited use of a landline telephone, on which he would be able to call approved numbers, Sternberg said. If he were given access to the Internet, his use of it would be highly supervised, Sternberg said.
“The world will have to get used to hearing less of Assange, filtered by people who see him in prison or his lawyers,” Sternberg said.
Opponents of extradition point to a decision in 2012 by May, who was home secretary at the time, to refuse to hand over Scottish computer hacker Gary McKinnon to the American criminal justice system. May cited medical reports indicating that McKinnon risked becoming a danger to himself if he stood trial in the United States.
But the current home secretary suggested his thinking about Assange’s case was different. In the House of Commons on Thursday, Sajid Javid excoriated the Labour Party for defending Assange and echoed the prime minister’s judgment. “There’s no one in this country that is above the law,” he said.
Moreover, the solicitor who represented McKinnon, Karen Todner, said May moved to limit the discretion of the home secretary to refuse to carry out extradition orders at the very same time that she refused to hand over Todner’s client, meaning Assange’s fate is likely to rest entirely with the courts. Todner also represented Lauri Love, a British hacker whose extradition was blocked last year by the High Court of Justice, which found that conditions in a U.S. prison would be “oppressive” and that Britain was the rightful forum for his prosecution.
Todner said she thinks Assange’s lawyers have a strong case to make that the request from U.S. prosecutors rests on “political offenses,” which are barred as grounds for surrendering an alleged criminal under many extradition treaties, including the one between Britain and the United States.
Meanwhile, prosecutors in Sweden said Thursday that they have received a request to reopen an investigation into Assange’s conduct from an attorney for a woman who accuses him of rape.
Swedish prosecutors said they had not been alerted to Assange’s arrest and learned of the developments in his case from media reports.
Sweden’s director of public prosecutions, Marianne Ny, closed the probe two years ago, saying she could not proceed while Assange enjoyed refuge in the Ecuadoran Embassy, but she noted that it would be possible to resume if he were expelled.
The investigation involves a 2010 complaint from a woman who says she met Assange at a WikiLeaks conference in Stockholm. She alleges he engaged in nonconsensual, unprotected sex with her — an accusation he denies.
If Sweden asks for Assange’s extradition, it will be up to Britain to decide in which order it heeds the requests, if at all, from the United States and Sweden.
Elisabeth Massi Fritz, the attorney for Assange’s accuser, said in a statement to The Washington Post that she hopes Britain will send the WikiLeaks founder first to Sweden, if prosecutors there bring charges. Her client’s case is more pressing than U.S. demands, she said, because the statute of limitations for the rape allegation expires in August 2020.
“I’m fighting for her rights to be remembered,” Fritz said. “Getting justice and restitution is of utmost importance for her to be able to move on with her life.”
Ellen Nakashima in Washington contributed to this report.