BOGOTA — U.S. investigators have received permission from Ecuador to question a Swedish programmer close to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange who has been held in jail for more than two months on suspicion of hacking, The Associated Press has learned.
The interview with Ola Bini is set for June 27, according to an Ecuadorian prosecutor’s order provided to AP by someone closely following the case.
Spokespeople at the U.S. Justice Department declined to comment, but a person familiar with the case in the United States confirmed that U.S. authorities want to hear from Bini, who was arrested the same day that Ecuador evicted Assange from its embassy in London. Both people spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to publicly discuss an investigation that is in progress.
It’s not clear why American authorities asked to speak with Bini. But the previously unannounced request suggests for the first time that the Swedish programmer, who has not been charged with any crimes by Ecuador, is a potential witness or person of interest in U.S. investigations into Assange and WikiLeaks.
Bini, 36, was arrested at Quito’s airport as he prepared to board a flight to Japan. He so far faces no charges, but top Ecuadorian officials have alleged that he was part of a plot hatched with two unidentified Russian hackers living in Ecuador to threaten to release compromising documents about President Lenin Moreno. At the time, Moreno was toughening his stance against Assange, who had been living at the country’s embassy in London under asylum since 2012.
Privacy groups have accused Ecuador of carrying out a witch hunt because of Bini’s friendship with Assange and his longstanding advocacy for digital privacy. Bini is believed to have travelled at least 12 times to meet with Assange at the London embassy. Prosecutors have 90 days to compile evidence and charge him.
David Kaye, the United Nations’ special investigator on freedom of expression, has criticized his continued detention. “Nothing in this story connects Ola Bini with any crime,” Kaye said in April.
An expert on secure communications, Bini arrived in Quito in 2013 after being transferred from Chicago to the Ecuador office of global tech firm Thoughtworks, which has guiding principles that stress social activism. Around the same time, Bini started to rethink his online habits and at one point gave up his Gmail account in favour of self-hosted email.
Ecuadorian authorities have requested assistance from code experts in the U.S. in analyzing more than 30 electronic storage devices that Bini was carrying when he was arrested.
Assange, who has been detained in Britain since being kicked out of Ecuador’s embassy, is fighting an extradition request from the U.S. He faces an 18-count indictment in the Eastern District of Virginia that accuses him of soliciting and publishing classified information and with conspiring with former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to crack a Defence Department computer password.
Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman reported this story in Bogota and AP writer Eric Tucker reported from Washington. AP writer Gonzalo Solano in Quito, Ecuador, contributed to this report.
Joshua Goodman And Eric Tucker, The Associated Press