The Justice Department revealed Thursday that it has charged Julian Assange with computer hacking hours after the fugitive founder of WikiLeaks was arrested in London on behalf of a U.S. request to extradite him.
Assange, the publisher of state secrets that embarrassed governments around the world, was wanted in Britain for skipping bail in 2012, when he was under investigation in Sweden on charges of sexual assault and rape. He spent almost seven years living in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to avoid extradition to the U.S.
Assange is charged with one count of “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion for agreeing to break a password to a classified U.S. government computer,” according to the indictment released Thursday by the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. If convicted, he faces up to five years in prison.
Prosecutors say the password was being sought by Chelsea Manning, a former Army intelligence officer who provided Assange with a trove of secret government documents that WikiLeaks published in 2010 — “one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States,” according to the indictment.
Assange, 47, has said that the United States is trying to infringe on his journalistic freedoms. The indictment accused him of going beyond the role of a traditional journalist when he helped Manning crack the password that gave her access to hundreds of thousands of classified files.
Appearing at Westminster Magistrates’ Court on Thursday afternoon, Assange pleaded not guilty but was convicted of failing to surrender to police on June 29, 2012. He will be sentenced in Crown Court, where more serious crimes are heard.
Assange faces extradition hearings on May 2 and June 12.
Addressing the media outside the court after the hearing, Assange’s London-based attorney, Jennifer Robinson, said his arrest “sets a dangerous precedent for all media organizations and journalists.”
“Since 2010 we’ve warned that Julian Assange would face extradition to the U.S. for his publishing activities with WikiLeaks,” Robinson said. “Unfortunately today we’ve been proven right.”
She added that she had just spoken to Assange, whose message to the world was: “I told you so.”
In an interview with NBC News, Robinson said she was concerned about her client’s health, adding that “he was in the middle of treatment for [a] root canal when he was arrested.”
A source directly familiar with the situation told NBC News that the U.S. is making plans to seek Assange’s extradition.
Footage shot by the Ruptly news video agency showed a bedraggled and bearded Assange being hauled out of the Ecuadorian Embassy by seven men. As he was bundled into a waiting police van, Assange shouted: “You must resist. You can resist. … The U.K. must resist.”
Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno said in a video message that Assange had his diplomatic asylum withdrawn due to “repeatedly violating international conventions.”