A lawyer for Julian Assange has indicated that the WikiLeaks founder is ready to face extradition to the US after Barack Obama commuted the sentence of US army whistleblower Chelsea Manning.
Assange has been holed up at the Ecuadorian embassy in London since claiming asylum there in 2012. He has refused to meet prosecutors in Sweden, where he remains wanted on an allegation of rape, which he denies. He has repeatedly said he fears extradition to the US on espionage charges if he leaves the embassy, though at the moment the only public extradition ruling against him comes from Sweden.
Assange welcomed Obama’s decision to free Manning, who passed 700,000 documents, videos, diplomatic cables and battlefield accounts to WikiLeaks. “Your courage and determination made the impossible possible,” Assange said in a statement thanking campaigners for their efforts to get her released.
He did not mention a pledge made last week that he would agree to US extradition if Obama granted clemency to Manning.
But Melinda Taylor, who serves on Assange’s legal team, said he would not be going back on his word. “Everything that he has said he’s standing by,” she told the Associated Press.
The WikiLeaks Twitter accounted also suggested its founder was ready to go to the US.
The White House insisted on Tuesday that Assange’s offer to submit to extradition if Obama “grants Manning clemency” did not influence the US president’s action.
“The president’s decision to offer commutation was not influenced by public comments by Mr Assange or the WikiLeaks organisation,” the White House official said. “I have no insight into Mr Assange’s travel plans. I can’t speak to any charges or potential charges he may be facing from the justice department.”
In his statement, Assange said Manning should never have been convicted and described her as “a hero, whose bravery should have been applauded not condemned”.
Assange went on to demand that the US government “immediately end its war on whistleblowers and publishers, such as WikiLeaks and myself”.
Another lawyer for Assange, Barry Pollack, did not address whether Assange intended to come to the US.
“For many months, I have asked the DoJ to clarify Mr Assange’s status. I hope it will soon,” he said in a statement. “The Department of Justice should not pursue any charges against Mr Assange based on his publication of truthful information and should close its criminal investigation of him immediately.”
The justice department has never announced any indictment of Assange and it is not clear that any charges have been brought under seal. The department, in refusing to turn over investigative documents sought by Manning under the Freedom of Information Act, has acknowledged that the FBI is continuing to investigate the publication of national security information on WikiLeaks arising from Manning’s disclosures.
“That investigation concerns potential violations of federal criminal laws, in the form of serious threats to the national security, and the investigation continues today,” department lawyers wrote in a court filing last year. “From the terms of her request, it is clear that Manning seeks to obtain documents concerning that investigation.”
Separately, the FBI is also investigating Russian meddling through hacking in the US presidential election. Hacked emails from top Democratic officials and Hillary Clinton campaign aides were posted on WikiLeaks in the final weeks of the presidential race.
With the commutation coming just days before Obama leaves office, any decision on whether to charge or seek to extradite Assange will now fall to the Trump administration.