Prosecutors acknowledged to a judge on Tuesday that they erred when they mistakenly referenced criminal charges against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in an unrelated case, but they insisted the need for secrecy in the case still remains.
A federal judge heard arguments on a request by a free-press group to unseal criminal charges against Assange. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press argued that the inadvertent disclosure by prosecutors about charges against Assange obliterates the usual need for secrecy.
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema asked pointed questions of both sides and took the issue under advisement.
Typically, criminal charges remain under seal until a defendant has been arrested to prevent a target from fleeing arrest or destroying evidence ahead of prosecution.
In this case, the free-press advocates pointed out that Assange has been holed up since 2012 under a grant of asylum at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for fear of prosecution in the U.S. Now that any doubt about those charges has been removed, there no longer exists a reason to keep the charges against him secret, lawyer Katie Townsend argued.
But prosecutor Gordon Kromberg said no precedent exists for a judge to require disclosure of criminal charges before a defendant’s arrest. He acknowledged the error in which court papers in an unrelated case say that Assange “has been charged,” but he said the mistake is not confirmation that Assange is actually charged.
The Associated Press and other outlets have reported that Assange is indeed facing unspecified charges under seal, but Kromberg said there is a significant difference between reporting based on anonymous sources and speculation versus official confirmation backed by the release of court documents. He said court precedent also recognizes the distinction between the two.
Brinkema pressed Townsend for any precedent requiring criminal charges to be unsealed prior to arrest. She deferred ruling on the request to give Townsend a few days to research the issue.
Brinkema, though, also questioned government lawyers closely on why there would be a need to keep charges under seal when there has been an inadvertent disclosure.
“This is an interesting case, to say the least,” Brinkema said.
While Assange remains protected in the Ecuadorian embassy, there have been indications that officials in that country are losing patience with him: They recently placed restrictions on his use of the embassy, including a requirement that he clean up after his cat.
While the exact charges against Assange remain unclear, WikiLeaks has served as a vehicle for release of thousands of classified U.S. military and diplomatic cables. WikiLeaks’ role in releasing emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee in 2016 has also been under scrutiny as special counsel Robert Mueller has investigated Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether the campaign of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump was involved.