Julian Assange was indicted by the U.S. under the Espionage Act on Thursday, setting the stage for a dramatic confrontation between U.S. and Swedish prosecutors, who each want to extradite Assange before the other.
Sweden had, a week earlier, re-opened a rape investigation into the Wikileaks founder and began steps to request his extradition.
By indicting Assange with 18 charges under the Espionage Act, each of which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years, the U.S. has considerably raised the stakes. The only U.S. charge against Assange before Thursday was one count of conspiring to hack a password, which came with a maximum sentence of five years in prison. The new charges relate to Assange’s role in publishing classified State Department documents on WikiLeaks in 2010 and 2011.
Sweden’s move to request Assange’s arrest in the U.K. on rape charges may have prompted U.S. prosecutors to “throw the kitchen sink” at Assange, Ben Keith, a U.K. barrister specializing in extradition law, tells TIME.
“It may be that Sweden’s further interest in this case means the U.S. has had to up the ante,” he says. “If Assange goes to Sweden, it’s more difficult to extradite him to the U.S. from there, because prosecutors will have to get both U.K. permission and Swedish permission.” (Officials from the U.S. Department of Justice did not explain why they chose to issue the further charges under the Espionage Act on Thursday.)
But the U.S. indictments could backfire, due to provisions in the extradition treaty between the U.K. and the U.S. that protect against political prosecutions. The charges have raised freedom of the press concerns among some journalists in the U.S., and Assange may choose to argue that the new indictments are of a political nature.
Even if that doesn’t happen, the decision-maker in this case is the U.K. Home Secretary Sajid Javid. He has come under great pressure to treat the rape allegations against Assange with more gravity than the U.S.’s national security charges.
“The Home Secretary has to look at the seriousness of the offenses and which offense came first in time,” Keith says. “Even now, the Swedish offense might be more serious.”
“There’s concern that the U.S. is trying to steal a march on Sweden, who have been trying to extradite Assange for many years.”