WikiLeaks chief Assange could face charges, U.S. court filing suggests

The U.S. Justice Department inadvertently named Julian Assange in a court filing in an unrelated case, suggesting prosecutors have prepared charges against the WikiLeaks founder under seal.

Ex-attorney general had said Assange's arrest was Justice Department priority

Julian Assange was inadvertently named in a U.S. Justice Department court filing in August, raising questions about whether the WikiLeaks founder had been charged under seal. (Frank Augstein/Associated Press)

The U.S. Justice Department inadvertently named Julian Assange in a court filing in an unrelated case, suggesting prosecutors have prepared charges against the WikiLeaks founder under seal.

Assange's name appears twice in an August court filing from a federal prosecutor in Virginia, who was attempting to keep sealed a separate case involving a man accused of coercing a minor for sex.

In one sentence, the prosecutor wrote that the charges and arrest warrant "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."

In another part of the filing, the prosecutor said 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."

Any charges against Assange could help illuminate the question of whether Russia colluded with the Trump campaign to sway the 2016 presidential election.

It would also suggest that, after years of internal wrangling within the Justice Department, prosecutors have decided to take a more aggressive tack against the secret-sharing website.

It was not immediately clear why Assange's name was included in the document, though Joshua Stueve, a spokesperson for the Eastern District of Virginia — which had been investigating Assange — said, "The court filing was made in error. That was not the intended name for this filing."

The Washington Post reported late Thursday, citing people familiar with the matter, that Assange had indeed been charged. The Associated Press could not immediately confirm that.

U.S. had made arrest a priority

It was not immediately clear what charges Assange, who has been holed up for years in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, might face.

But recently ousted U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions last year declared the arrest of Assange a priority. Special counsel Robert Mueller has been investigating whether Trump campaign associates had advance knowledge of Democratic emails that were published by WikiLeaks in the weeks before the 2016 election and that U.S. authorities have said were hacked by Russia.

Any arrest could represent a significant development for Mueller's investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to influence the election.

Former U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions declared last year that Assange's arrest was a priority for the Justice Department. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press)

Barry Pollack, a lawyer for Assange, told the AP earlier this week that he had no information about possible charges against Assange.

In a new statement, he said, "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. The government bringing criminal charges against someone for publishing truthful information is a dangerous path for a democracy to take."

The filing was discovered by Seamus Hughes, a terrorism expert at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, who posted it on Twitter hours after the Wall Street Journal reported that the Justice Department was preparing to prosecute Assange and said, "To be clear, seems Freudian, it's for a different completely unrelated case, every other page is not related to him, EDVA just appears to have Assange on the mind when filing motions to seal and used his name."

Assange, 47, has resided in the Ecuadorian Embassy for more than six years in a bid to avoid being extradited — either to Sweden, where he was previously wanted on sex crimes charges that have since been dropped, or to the United States, whose government he has repeatedly humbled with mass disclosures of classified information.

Overstaying one's welcome?

The Australian ex-hacker was once a welcome guest at the embassy, which takes up part of the ground floor of a stucco-fronted apartment in London's posh Knightsbridge neighbourhood. But his relationship with his hosts has soured over the years amid reports of espionage, erratic behaviour and diplomatic unease.

Any criminal charge is sure to further complicate the already tense relationship.

Ecuadorian officials say they have already cut off the WikiLeaks founder's internet, saying it will be restored only if he agrees to stop interfering in the affairs of Ecuador's partners — notably the United States and Spain. Officials have also imposed a series of other restrictions on Assange's activities and visitors.

Carlos Poveda, Assange's lawyer in Ecuador, said he suspects the small South American country's government has been manoeuvering to kick his client out of the embassy through stricter new living requirements it recently imposed.

He said the possible U.S. charges, however, are proof his client remains under threat and called on Ecuador's government to uphold Assange's asylum protections. He said Ecuador would be responsible if anything happened to Assange.

With shrinking options — an Ecuadorian lawsuit seeking to reverse the restrictions was recently turned down —​ WikiLeaks announced in September that former spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson, an Icelandic journalist who has long served as one of Assange's lieutenants, would take over as editor in chief.

WikiLeaks has attracted U.S. attention since 2010, when it published thousands of military and State Department documents from Army Pvt. Chelsea Manning. In a Twitter post early Friday, WikiLeaks said the "U.S. case against WikiLeaks started in 2010" and expanded to include other disclosures, including by contractor Edward Snowden.

"The prosecutor on the order is not from Mr. Mueller's team and WikiLeaks has never been contacted by anyone from his office," WikiLeaks said.