Assange Case, If It Exists, Can't Be Made Public, U.S. Argues

(Bloomberg) -- The news media has no legal right to learn whether WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was charged in a sealed proceeding, despite an inadvertent filing in an unrelated case that said the Justice Department has accused him of wrongdoing, the U.S. said.

The Justice Department responded Monday to a Nov. 16 lawsuit by the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, which seeks access to any criminal complaint, indictment or other charging documents relating to Assange.

Prosecutors said that if a record of charges isn’t publicly available, that means the person hasn’t been charged or the case is under seal.

“In either event, the government is not required to publicly acknowledge which of those two possibilities happens to be the case with respect to any individual,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Kromberg wrote in a filing in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia. “The First Amendment does not require the government to confirm or deny the existence of criminal charges in this case.”

The Assange case came to light this month after a prosecutor inadvertently filed a document in an unrelated case that said “no other procedure is likely to keep confidential the fact that Assange has been charged.” The Assange reference was made in error and the government said it accepts full responsibility for it.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kellen S. Dwyer also said the matter “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.” A person familiar with the matter confirmed Assange had been charged, although it’s unclear with what.

Assange, 47, who was born in Australia, has been living in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London since 2012 to avoid possible extradition to the U.S.

He’s been under investigation ever since WikiLeaks published thousands of classified government documents, including diplomatic cables and military logs and videos, starting in 2010. He’s also come under scrutiny of U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller amid probes into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. In 2016, WikiLeaks published emails from the Democratic National Committee that, according to the U.S., had been hacked by Russian intelligence.

U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema has scheduled a hearing for Tuesday on the case.

The case is In Re: Application of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to Unseal Criminal Prosecution of Julian Assenge, 18-mc-37, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Virginia (Alexandria).

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