5th Jul 2020

UK arrests WikiLeaks founder on EU warrant

  • Mr Assange is the most popular nomination for Time's 'Person of the Year' (Photo: Wikipedia)

British police have arrested WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on a European Arrest Warrant issued by Sweden in a case of alleged rape. The development comes amid renewed cyber-attacks on his website and restrictions on access to the leaked cables by EU and US authorities.

"Today's actions against our editor in chief Julian Assange won't affect our operations: We will release more cables tonight as normal," the WikiLeaks team said on their Twitter account reacting to the UK move on Tuesday (7 December).

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According to Scotland Yard, Mr Assange on Tuesday morning turned himself in at a London police station and was subsequently arrested on the basis of a fresh European Arrest Warrant.

The 39-year-old Australian citizen is accused of rape, unlawful coercion and sexual molestation, allegedly committed against two women in Sweden in August. Mr Assange denies the accusations and says the dispute is "over consensual but unprotected sex."

The arrest follows months of confusion - the initial arrest warrant issued by a Swedish prosecutor was revoked the next day by his superior. It was later reissued, but the first European Arrest warrant put out by Sweden contained procedural errors.

One of the two women involved told the Swedish daily newspaper Aftonbladet on an anonymous basis that she had never intended Mr Assange to be charged with rape and that both women had had voluntary sexual relations with him. "He is not violent and I do not feel threatened by him," she reportedly said. "The responsibility for what happened to me and the other girl lies with a man who had attitude problems with women."

The statement has fuelled conspiracy theories among bloggers and WikiLeaks supporters about ulterior motives for the arrest: to stop the leaks from being published. A proof of the former hacker's skyrocketing popularity is an online poll carried by the US-based Time magazine in the run-up to their "Person of the Year" award: Mr Assange tops the 25-long ranking, ahead of pop star Lady Gaga or US President Barack Obama.

In an online chat on the El Pais website, Mr Assange said he had received hundreds of death threats, targeting not only himself but also his lawyers and children. American politicians have called for him to be indicted of treason, although he is not a US citizen.

Republican presidential wannabe Sarah Palin - famous for her gaffes - said he should be "hunted down like Osama Ben Laden." The comment prompted the WikiLeaks team to comment on their Twitter account that Mr Assange "should be safe for at least a decade," in reference to the unsuccessful US attempts to capture the Al Qaeda chief.

His arrest comes amid renewed cyber-attacks on the WikiLeaks website and decisions by a string of US-based companies to deny services to his group.

Amazon has in the past few days ousted the site from its servers. DNS took the domain name down. MasterCard stopped payments to the site's accounts citing "illegal activities" pursued by WikiLeaks and PayPal froze $79,700 of its money. Swiss Post's financial arm, Postfinance, has also shut down a bank account set up for Mr Assange's legal defence. The Swiss body argued that he "provided false information regarding his place of residence during the account opening process."

In what seems to be developing into a full blown Internet war, WikiLeaks supporters have opened hundreds of mirror websites, facilitating the distribution of the leaked cables from the main Swiss website address operated by the Swiss Pirate Party.

The White House meanwhile issued a directive on 3 December forbidding unauthorised federal employees from accessing classified documents available on WikiLeaks. The Library of Congress responded a few hours later by blocking access to WikiLeaks from its computers. "Each federal employee and contractor is obligated to protect classified information," the White House directive said, stressing that the fact that leaked documents did not mean they had been declassified.

The same day, the US military posted the following message on NIPRNet, the Internet network used by its troops in Iraq: "Department of Defence military, civilian and contractor personnel should not access the WikiLeaks website to view or download the publicized classified information."

Freedom of the press watchdog Reporters Without Borders said the directives are "a violation of the right to information," as Internet users throughout the world are now able to access the same documents.

The organisation has also criticised French authorities for trying to block access to WikiLeaks. After being ousted from Amazon, the site found a refuge for part of its content with the French Internet company OVH. French digital economy minister Eric Besson on Saturday said the government was looking at ways to ban hosting of the site.

Thailand and China also banned access to the original site which is no longer available after the DNS shutdown.

"We are shocked to find countries such as France and the United States suddenly bringing their policies on freedom of expression into line with those of China. We point out that in France and the United States, it is up to the courts, not politicians, to decide whether or not a website should be closed," a statement by Reporters without Borders says.

Two Republican senators, John Ensign and Scott Brown, plus independent senator Joe Lieberman, have meanwhile introduced a bill that would make it illegal to publish the names of US military and intelligence agency informants. The move could facilitate future prosecutions against WikiLeaks and its founder.

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