From embassy to prison: Assange settles in for legal battle

A woman holds up the Spanish hashtag #Freedom during a protest against the arrest of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, outside the Foreign Ministry in Quito, Ecuador, Thursday, April 11, 2019. On Thursday, Ecuador's President Lenin Moreno allowed British authorities to forcibly remove Assange from Ecuador’s small embassy in London where he was given safe haven in 2012. (Dolores Ochoa/AP Photo)

A woman holds up the Spanish hashtag #Freedom during a protest against the arrest of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, outside the Foreign Ministry in Quito, Ecuador, Thursday, April 11, 2019. On Thursday, Ecuador's President Lenin Moreno allowed British authorities to forcibly remove Assange from Ecuador’s small embassy in London where he was given safe haven in 2012. (Dolores Ochoa/AP Photo)

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has exchanged a small room at the Ecuadorian Embassy in central London for a cell at Belmarsh Prison, a grim institution in the southeast part of the city where he nevertheless has certain advantages he didn’t have when he was holed up, hiding from the law.

WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson said Friday that the ailing Assange should finally be able to receive medical care and will be able to meet with his lawyers more easily than he could in the embassy, where a feud with Ecuadorian authorities had led to a ban on most guests.

The 47-year-old Assange has extreme shoulder pain and tooth pain, Hrafnsson said.

For nearly seven years, Assange lived in the embassy without taking a step outside for fear of being arrested and sent to the U.S. to be prosecuted.

On Thursday, British authorities dragged the Australian native from the embassy, and U.S. authorities announced charges against him of conspiring to break into a Pentagon computer, setting up what is expected to be an epic legal and political battle over whether to extradite him to the U.S.

His arrest became possible after Ecuador revoked his political asylum, complaining that he was an obnoxious houseguest who didn’t clean up after his cat and that WikiLeaks was plotting to blackmail the Latin American country’s president.

At the prison, where he is being held while the extradition process plays out, “there are medical facilities there, access to dental care I would assume, and a garden to go out into,” Hrafnsson said.

“But comparing one prison to another and giving a star rating is not really what’s on my mind,” he said. “What’s on my mind is there’s an innocent man in prison for doing his job as a journalist, and that’s an outrage.”

He said Assange is in relatively good mental condition considering the stress of recent days.

The political debate over whether to extradite Assange is already taking shape, with Britain’s opposition Labour Party urging the government not to hand him over to the Americans. Party leader Jeremy Corbyn tweeted that the U.S. is prosecuting Assange because he exposed “evidence of atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Diane Abbott, Labour’s spokeswoman for domestic affairs, told Parliament: “It is this whistle-blowing into illegal wars, mass murder, murder of civilians and corruption on a grand scale that has put Julian Assange in the cross hairs of the U.S. administration.”

The politicization of the case reflects the clashing views of Assange as either a heroic whistleblower standing up to the mighty United States or a willing stooge who helped the Russians boost Donald Trump’s presidential campaign by publishing hacked emails that embarrassed his rival, Hillary Clinton.

Assange’s bid to fend off extradition could take years and involve several layers of appeal. He could also face a second extradition request if Sweden decides to pursue a rape case against him that was suspended in 2017, when he was in the embassy, beyond the reach of the law.

If found guilty of the U.S. charges, Assange could get five years in prison. His next court appearance is set for May 2 via a prison video link.

Extradition lawyer Ben Keith said the court will not assess the evidence against Assange to determine his guilt or innocence but will scrutinize whether the offense he is accused of in the U.S. would be a crime in Britain.

“The most likely outcome is that he will be extracted to the United States,” he said.

If Assange loses in extradition court, he could appeal several times and ultimately try to have his case heard at the European Court of Human Rights — unless Britain has left the European Union by that time.

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