- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 11, 2019

Russian government officials condemned the arrest Thursday of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who oversaw the website’s release in 2016 of stolen material allegedly supplied by hackers working for Moscow.

“We certainly hope that all of his rights will be respected,” said Dmitry Peskov, a spokesperson for Russian President Vladimir Putin, state media reported.

“The form in which this operation was carried out leaves a complete impression of frank and gross disregard for the human dignity of the arrested. We hope that all the rights of Julian Assange will be respected,” added Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry. “The hand of ‘democracy’ squeezes the throat of freedom.”

Mr. Assange, a 47-year-old Australian native, was arrested earlier Thursday after being evicted from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he lived for nearly seven years seeking refuge from prosecution related to WikiLeaks. He has since been charged by U.S. prosecutors, and an extradition hearing has been scheduled for May 2.

A criminal indictment unsealed by the U.S. Department of Justice following Mr. Assange’s arrest accuses the WikiLeaks publisher of assisting a former source, Chelsea Manning, with “cracking a password stored on United States Department of Defense computers.”

Manning, a former Army intelligence analyst, was arrested in April 2010 and ultimately charged, convicted and sentenced in connection with supplying WikiLeaks with a trove of classified documents, including military and diplomatic material.

The Justice Department announced an investigation into WikiLeaks nearly nine years ago after Manning’s arrest, and federal prosecutors have pursued charges in the interim related to material subsequently published by the website, including stolen Democratic National Committee emails and CIA hacking tools released in 2016 and 2017, respectively.

Federal law enforcement and intelligence officials have assessed that the Democratic material released by WikiLeaks during the 2016 U.S. presidential race was stolen by Russian state-sponsored hackers prior to being provided to the website for publication. Moscow has denied responsibility.

Reacting to Mr. Assange’s arrest, U.S. lawmakers from both sides of the aisle accused the WikiLeaks boss of catering to the Kremlin.

Julian Assange has long been a wicked tool of Vladimir Putin and the Russian intelligence services,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, Nebraska Republican. “He deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison.”

“Unfortunately, whatever his intentions when he started WikiLeaks, what he’s really become is a direct participant in Russian efforts to undermine the West and a dedicated accomplice in efforts to undermine American security,” echoed Sen. Mark Warner, Virginia Democrat and vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Joshua Schulte, a former CIA engineer, has been charged in connection with leaking the hacking tools. He had pleaded not guilty to all counts and is awaiting trial.

Manning, 31, served roughly seven years in military prison prior to being released in 2017 as a result of having most of her sentence commuted by former President Barack Obama. She was jailed again last month after being found in contempt for refusing to cooperate with federal prosecutors investigating WikiLeaks.

The Guardian newspaper reported last year that Russian officials unsuccessfully plotted to extract Mr. Assange from the embassy in late 2017. The Russian Embassy in London dismissed the report at the time as “disinformation and fake news.”

Bailey Vogt contributed to this article.

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