Julian Assange: What does extradition mean and how does it work?

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on Thursday vowed to fight extradition to the United States, saying he did not want to be tried for his work with WikiLeaks that has "saved many people."

Assange has been charged with conspiracy to commit computer intrusion for allegedly helping Chelsea Manning, a former U.S. Army intelligence analyst, hack a Pentagon computer password cache in 2010.

Assange told a London judge on Thursday that he would not willingly go to the United States to face those charges.

"I do not wish to surrender myself to extradition for doing journalism that has won many, many awards and saved many people," Assange said through a video link from the prison where he is being held.

His full extradition hearing is set to begin on June 12.

On Wednesday, Assange was sentenced to 50 weeks in jail for skipping bail in the United Kingdom after a 2010 arrest on sexual assault charges.

Assange was taken into custody in London last month by British authorities who acted on a U.S. request to extradite him for helping Manning try to hack a password to a Pentagon computer system.

Assange was arrested after he was evicted from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London on April 11. He had been granted asylum there to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he had been charged with sexual assault.

The process of extradition – when one country turns over to another country someone indicted or convicted of a crime – is a complex one that can take years to complete.

Here’s a look at the process, and how Assange fits into it.

How did Assange come to be in jail awaiting extradition?

The Swedish government had charged Assange with sexual assault and issued an arrest warrant for him. Assange was taken into custody in the United Kingdom on the sexual assault charges and assigned bail as a condition of being released from a London jail.

After he was released from jail and after months of legal wrangling, Assange entered the Ecuadorian Embassy and asked for asylum on June 16, 2012. Asylum is a legal process by which people fleeing persecution in one country seek protection from another country.

Assange was granted asylum by Ecuador on Aug. 16, 2012, and moved into the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. He violated the conditions of his bail when he stayed in the embassy and failed to show up for a hearing in his case.

How did he get asylum from Ecuador if he didn’t leave England?

An embassy in a foreign country belongs to the country it represents, not to the host country on which the building sits. When Assange was allowed onto the property, it was the same as if he had gone to Ecuador.

Why was his asylum revoked?

Apparently, Assange was not a very considerate guest in the embassy. He came to the embassy in 2012 when Rafael Correa was president of Ecuador. In 2017, Lenin Moreno was elected president of Ecuador, and Assange was critical of Moreno and his administration. In addition, employees in the embassy said Assange was rude, loud and unsanitary.

Last month, on April 11, his asylum was revoked and Ecuadorian officials invited U.K. law enforcement officials into the building to take Assange into custody on the charge of skipping out on bail for the December 2010 arrest, and at the request of the U.S. government on charges of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion.

The charges in the sexual assault case that resulted in Assange being arrested in London in the first place were dropped in 2015. Swedish officials say they may be reinstated.

What are the US charges against Assange?

The Justice Department indicted Assange in March 2018, charging him with conspiracy for helping Manning try to get the password that eventually enabled her to collect and transmit classified documents that were published by WikiLeaks.

The U.S. asked the U.K. to extradite Assange to America to face that charge.

What is extradition?

Extradition is a process that allows a country to request that another country return a person to stand trial or to serve a sentence that has already been imposed.

Can any country ask another to extradite a person?

A country’s government can ask, but that doesn’t mean the person will be returned.

First, the two countries must have a treaty that allows one country to extradite a person to the other.

The United States has extradition treaties with more than 100 countries, some of which have been in place more than 100 years, and when the U.S. is seeking to have a person returned, it must follow the process laid out in the treaty.

There are more than 75 countries with which the U.S. does not have extradition treaties. Saudi Arabia, Russia, China and the United Arab Emirates are among them.

Who can be extradited?

While circumstances surrounding treaties can vary, there are some basic conditions a country must meet in order to request that a person be extradited.

For instance, the person to be extradited must have been indicted or convicted of a crime, not just suspected of having committed the crime.
Also, there are only certain crimes for which a person can be returned to another country. While some crimes, such as murder, sexual assault, and kidnapping, are almost always included in extradition treaties, some, such as theft of classified government information, may not be considered extraditable offenses.

Generally, the crime must be punishable by both countries.

In Assange's case, an exception on extraditing a person charged with a political crime may come into play.

Most countries, including the U.K., where Assange was arrested, will not extradite a person charged or convicted of a political crime.

The treaty between the U.K. and the U.S. contains a clause that says a person may not be extradited for a political offense. But the term "political offense" is not defined in that treaty.

How does the process take place?

If U.S. federal prosecutors want to extradite a person, they present that request to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of International Affairs.

The OIA completes the extradition paperwork and transmits it to the U.S. Embassy in the country where the person is in custody. The request then goes to that country’s justice system for processing to determine if the person can and will be extradited to the U.S.

If the extradition is approved, U.S. marshals go to the country to take custody of the person and bring him or her to the U.S.

How could Assange fight extradition?

Assange’s best bet to fight extradition would likely be by using the “political offenses” clause that exists in the extradition treaty between the U.S. and the U.K.

While it is often not specifically defined in most treaties, a political offenses clause generally covers crimes such as treason or espionage.

Those crimes are generally excluded from extradition because the accused can claim that their rights would not be respected in other countries.

"Although he's been charged with conspiracy to gain access to a government computer and that's not a political offense, I would suspect his defense will argue it's all about espionage," John Bellinger, the State Department's legal adviser under President George W. Bush, told Politico.

Assange was charged with conspiring with Manning to try to hack government computers. He was not charged with publishing the material that was hacked.

Manning was court-martialed on six Espionage Act counts and sentenced to 35 years in prison. She was released from jail by President Barack Obama but was rearrested in March for refusing to testify before a grand jury that was investigating WikiLeaks.

Some believe the indictment against Assange was limited to only a charge of computer fraud since that charge would not fall under the political offenses exclusion in the treaty.

According to The New York Times, the Justice Department intends to charge Assange with additional offenses.

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