Julian Assange charged in secret, mistake on US court filing suggests

Court filing submitted by US authorities in an unrelated case mentioned existence of criminal charges against someone named ‘Assange’

Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder whose disclosure of secret documents has angered American authorities for the past eight years, has been criminally charged in secret by the US justice department, a court filing has indicated.

The court filing, submitted apparently in error by US prosecutors in an unrelated case, mentioned criminal charges against someone named “Assange” even though that was not the name of the defendant.

Assange, who has been holed up in Ecuador’s embassy in London since seeking asylum in 2012, has long been under investigation by US law enforcement agencies for publishing classified diplomatic cables and other secret government records.

The 47-year-old Australian is also ensnared in the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 US election, due to his website’s publication of tens of thousands of emails stolen by Russian hackers from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and other Democrats.

One of Assange’s attorneys, Barry Pollack, said late on Thursday that it would be a “dangerous path for a democracy to take” for a government to bring criminal charges against someone for publishing truthful information.

“The news that criminal charges have apparently been filed against Mr. Assange is even more troubling than the haphazard manner in which that information has been revealed,” Pollack said in an email.

Earlier on Thursday evening, the Wall Street Journal reported that the US was making preparations to prosecute Assange and was confident of being able to detain him and make him stand trial.

The court filing, written by assistant US attorney Kellen Dwyer, did not specify the nature of any charges against Assange. It was submitted to the federal court in the eastern district of Virginia, which handles many cases involving national security.

Robert Mueller, the special counsel, has been investigating WikiLeaks for publishing the emails taken from Democrats in 2016, disrupting Clinton’s campaign. US intelligence agencies concluded the emails were taken by Russian government hackers as part of an operation aimed at helping the campaign of Donald Trump.

But the group has also been under scrutiny for years for its publication of troves of US government data, including hundreds of thousands of files taken by Chelsea Manning, the former soldier jailed for almost seven years.

The mistaken court filing was a motion asking the court to seal charges, meaning they are shielded from public view. It argued that “due to the sophistication of the defendant and the publicity surrounding the case, no other procedure is likely to keep confidential the fact that Assange has been charged”.

It later said: “The complaint, supporting affidavit and arrest warrant, as well as this motion and the proposed order, would need to remain sealed until Assange is arrested in connection with the charges in the criminal complaint and can therefore no longer evade or avoid arrest and extradition in this matter.”

Legal analysts said the error was likely to have been caused by prosecutors copying and pasting from sealed documents outlining charges against Assange. Prosecutors are known to copy text from past court filings to make similar arguments in new cases, typically changing names and other relevant details accordingly.

Assange and his supporters have frequently claimed US authorities were already prosecuting him in secret. WikiLeaks said on Twitter that the filing “reveals existence of sealed charges (or a draft for them) against WikiLeaks’ publisher Julian Assange”.

A spokesman for the Justice Department in Virginia’s eastern district would not directly address the question of whether the document meant Assange had already been charged by the US.

“The court filing was made in error. That was not the intended name for this filing,” the spokesman, Joshua Stueve, said in an email.

WikiLeaks published more than 50,000 Democratic emails during the 2016 campaign, beginning with a batch taken from the party’s servers that was dumped online shortly before its national convention in July 2016. The leak prompted the resignation of the party’s chairwoman and disrupted Clinton’s campaign. WikiLeaks later published more emails taken from the account of Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta.

Assange’s group featured in Mueller’s indictment in July of a group of Russian hackers accused of carrying out the email thefts but was not charged itself. Identified only as “organization 1”, it was accused of receiving the stolen emails from the Russian operatives after exchanging messages.

The July indictment said WikiLeaks urged the Russians to give them the first batch of stolen emails in the days before the Democratic convention so it could publish them in a way that would “have a much higher impact than what you are doing”. The filings did not, however, say whether Assange’s group knew it was dealing with Kremlin-backed operatives.

The mistaken court filing was first noticed on Thursday by Seamus Hughes, an academic at Georgetown University and former US government official. It was filed in the case of a man named Seitu Sulayman Kokayi. It was submitted to court in Kokayi’s case in August this year and was initially sealed. The reason for its unsealing was unclear.

Kokayi, 29, is charged with coercing a 15-year-old girl to have sex with him and to give him pornographic images, and with sending her a video of him masturbating.

But prosecutors told the court that investigators also collected “sensitive information relating to … national security” as part of the case. They told the court last week that they intend to use evidence gathered via electronic surveillance.

A handwritten note on a filing in the case said Kokayi’s father-in-law had been convicted of terrorism charges and accused Kokayi of having a “substantial interest in terrorist acts”.

Contributors

Jon Swaine in New York and Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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