A federal judge in Virginia appeared reluctant Tuesday to grant a request to unseal a criminal complaint against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, emphasizing the "compelling interest" the government has in keeping such matters under wraps until he is arrested, should that happen.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press moved to unseal any records related to Assange earlier this month after federal prosecutors inadvertently made two explicit references to Assange in an unrelated case in Virginia, including "the fact that Assange has been charged."
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In court Tuesday, prosecutors were careful to only speak in hypotheticals, refusing to acknowledge one way or another whether the WikiLeaks founder has, in fact, been charged, but nevertheless urging US District Judge Leonie Brinkema to deny the unsealing request because the government has never publicly acknowledged he is under federal investigation.
Brinkema said that under normal circumstances, there would be no question that the public has a right to see a complaint, but noted that right doesn't accrue until someone has been publicly charged and emphasized the "sound reasons" complaints are not unsealed earlier — highlighting the fact that before that time, a suspect could possibly destroy evidence or evade arrest.
Katie Townsend, a lawyer for the Reporters Committee, requested additional time to find cases where such an unsealing request has been granted in the past prior to an arrest, which the judge granted. The government will then have an opportunity to respond as well, so any decision by Brinkema could take several weeks.
CNN reported in April 2017 that US authorities prepared charges to seek Assange's arrest, citing US officials familiar with the matter. But no charges were ever announced, and Assange has remained holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London for years.
Barry J. Pollack, one of Assange's attorneys, did not speak in court on Tuesday but told reporters afterward that his client is supportive of the Reporters Committee's motion to unseal any charges.