LONDON (Reuters) – WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was arrested by British police and carried out of the Ecuadorean embassy on Thursday after his South American hosts abruptly revoked his seven-year asylum in a move his supporters said was illegal.
An agitated, frail-looking Assange with white hair and a white beard was carried out of the embassy by at least seven men to a waiting police van.
“Julian Assange, 47, has today, Thursday 11 April, been arrested by officers from the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) at the Embassy of Ecuador,” police said.
Police said they arrested Assange after being “invited into the embassy by the Ambassador, following the Ecuadorean government’s withdrawal of asylum.”
The arrest marks the end of one of the most peculiar turns of Assange’s tumultuous life, though his supporters said Ecuador’s termination of his asylum was illegal and feared that Assange would end up in the United States.
To some, Assange is a hero for exposing what supporters cast as abuse of power by modern states and for championing free speech. But to others, he is a dangerous rebel who has undermined the security of the United States.
WikiLeaks angered Washington by publishing hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. diplomatic cables that laid bare often highly critical U.S. appraisals of world leaders, from Russian President Vladimir Putin to members of the Saudi royal family.
Assange made international headlines in early 2010 when WikiLeaks published a classified U.S. military video showing a 2007 attack by Apache helicopters in Baghdad that killed a dozen people, including two Reuters news staff.
In 2012 he took refuge in Ecuador’s London embassy, behind the luxury department store Harrods, to avoid being extradited to Sweden, where authorities wanted to question him as part of a sexual assault investigation.
Sweden dropped that investigation in 2017, but Assange was arrested on Thursday for breaking the rules of his original bail in London. A Swedish lawyer representing the alleged rape victim said on Thursday she would push to have prosecutors reopen the investigation.
HERO OR VILLAIN?
Assange’s relationship with his hosts collapsed after Ecuador accused him of leaking information about President Lenin Moreno’s personal life. Moreno had previously said Assange had violated the terms of his asylum.
Moreno said on Thursday that Assange’s diplomatic asylum status had been canceled for repeated violation of conventions.
He said he had asked Britain to guarantee that Assange would not be extradited to a country where he could face torture or the death penalty.
“The British government has confirmed it in writing, in accordance with its own rules,” Moreno said. “The asylum of Mr Assange is unsustainable and no longer viable.”
Britain said no man was above the law.
“Julian Assange is no hero, he has hidden from the truth for years and years,” British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said.
“It’s not so much Julian Assange being held hostage in the Ecuadorean embassy, it’s actually Julian Assange holding the Ecuadorean embassy hostage in a situation that was absolutely intolerable for them.”
Assange was taken into custody at a central London police station and will be brought before Westminster Magistrates’ Court later.
Junior foreign minister Alan Duncan confirmed that Britain would not extradite Assange to the United States if he were to face the possibility of the death penalty there.
WikiLeaks said Ecuador had illegally terminated Assange’s political asylum in violation of international law.
Supporters of Assange had argued that living in the cramped conditions without access to sunlight had damaged his health.
Sweden closed its preliminary investigation into a suspected rape in 2017 as there was “no reason to believe that the decision to hand him (Assange) over to Sweden could be implemented within a reasonable timeframe”.
But then Chief Prosecutor Marianne Ny said at the time that the probe could be reopened should the situation change.
“If he at a later time were to make himself available, I can decide to immediately resume the preliminary investigation,” Ny, who has since retired, said in a 2017 statement.
The statute of limitations for rape in Sweden is 10 years, unless it is deemed to be aggravated, in which case the ability to prosecute runs for longer.
The Swedish Prosecution Authority had no immediate comment on Thursday regarding the news of Assange’s arrest or whether a probe could be reopened.
Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Kate Holton; Editing by Hugh Lawson