A Worn Out Welcome Ecuadorian Embassy Sours on Julian Assange
In 2012, Julian Assange was granted political asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Today, even as he faces the threat of a possible U.S. indictment, the new Ecuadorian leadership would like to get rid of their guest.
Even public attorneys make mistakes. Take, for instance, Kellen Dwyer, a U.S. prosecutor from Alexandria, Virginia, who suffered a particularly embarrassing mishap in August. While assembling an official document, Dwyer copied and pasted blocks of text from another document he had previously produced -- and twice forgot to remove the name Assange. As in Julian Assange, the founder of the whistleblowing platform WikiLeaks.
The document in question was a government motion to keep a criminal indictment sealed. Such secrecy, the document notes, is the only way to "keep confidential the fact that Assange has been charged." It goes on to say that "the complaint, supporting affidavit, and arrest warrant, as well as this motion and the proposed order, would need to remain sealed until Assange is arrested" and can no longer evade arrest and extradition.
This is something that Assange has always suspected but could never prove, namely that U.S. prosecutors have already filed or are close to filing charges against him and will soon issue a warrant for his arrest.
For the last six-and-a-half years, Assange has essentially been stuck in London, living in the Ecuadorian Embassy, a dignified brick building just a few steps from the world-famous department store Harrods in Knightsbridge. He doesn't get much sun and his hair has turned white as snow, as has his skin.
In early November, the 47-year-old Australian was awoken in the middle of the night by the sound of a fire extinguisher tipping over. He had placed the object in front of the open window of his raised-ground-floor bedroom. Was it just another bout of psychological warfare against Assange on the part of the Ecuadorian government?
The government in Quito has been providing Assange with political asylum since August 2012, but the relationship has recently soured and the Ecuadorian president would now like to see the Australian journalist leave the embassy sooner rather than later. In late March, Ecuadorian diplomats cut off Assange's internet connection and installed a jammer designed to prevent him from communicating with the outside world. Last month, the government issued new rules for dealing with their famous yet difficult guest.
When the fire extinguisher fell over that night, Assange bolted upright in bed and didn't know if the wind had pushed open the window or whether someone was trying to enter his room from outside. Was it mere paranoia? Assange has reason to fear intelligence agents kidnapping him and taking him to the U.S. In spring 2017, Mike Pompeo -- who has since been appointed secretary of state by U.S. President Donald Trump -- described WikiLeaks as a "non-state hostile intelligence service."
Even since it has been confirmed that at least a draft of an indictment against Assange exists, indications have also been mounting that a secret extradition request may already have been prepared and delivered to the U.S. Embassy in London. The British authorities, for their part, would likely arrest him immediately as soon as he set foot outside the Ecuadorian Embassy. Scotland Yard accuses him of having skipped bail, a violation that carries the possibility of up to a year in prison.
Assange has said on multiple occasions that he would turn himself into the British police and go to prison if the government in London promised to allow him to travel to Ecuador afterward. But such an assurance from the Brits has not been forthcoming. They would rather hand Assange over to the U.S. The British and American intelligence agencies, after all, are close partners.
In 2010, WikiLeaks published documents in conjunction with the Guardian, the New York Times and DER SPIEGEL pertaining to U.S. war crimes committed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since then, the U.S. government has been after Assange and a grand jury in Virginia is investigating several people in connection with WikiLeaks, including Assange himself, the former WikiLeaks journalist Sarah Harrison of Britain and Jacob Appelbaum, a U.S. citizen who lives in Berlin. The basis of those investigations could be the Espionage Act of 1917, which allows for penalties of up to life in prison. The message is clear: Potential copycats should think twice about taking on the U.S. government and its intelligence services.
Assange's interactions with the judiciary are myriad and complex, starting with an investigation launched by Swedish prosecutors for a "minor case of rape." This began in August 2010 after two Swedish women who had slept with Assange asked police whether it would be possible to force him to undergo an HIV test.
British police arrested Assange in early December 2010 with the intention of extraditing him to Sweden. Film director Ken Loach, Jemima Khan, the former wife of the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, the journalist John Pilger and others joined forces to pay Assange's 200,000-pound bail and he was subsequently released.
Once he had exhausted all legal channels for fighting extradition to Sweden, Assange cut off the electronic ankle bracelet he had been required to wear as a condition of his bail, marched into the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and requested asylum on June 19, 2012. Not quite two months later, then-Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño announced in Quito that Assange's asylum application had been approved. Assange could not expect a fair trial in the United States, Patiño said. British politicians then began publicly discussing whether they could simply send police into the embassy and kidnap the Australian, even though such a move would clearly violate international law and the special protections enjoyed by embassies.
For quite some time, British investigators were able to dissuade their Swedish counterparts from discarding the investigation into Assange. These efforts were revealed in emails from the UK's "Crown Prosecution Service" that have since been made public. But in May 2017, the Swedes closed the case and applied for the international arrest warrant against Assange to be suspended.
Even prior to that, in February 2016, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued a statement in which it argued that Assange's stay in the embassy was a case of "unlawful detainment." The British government, reflecting its own unique brand of arrogance, blasted the statement as "ridiculous."
For years, the Ecuadorian Embassy placed very few restrictions on Assange when it came to receiving guests. They were simply asked to register with the embassy's security personnel at least one day prior to their visit, leave their passports at the entrance, enter their names in a registry and sometimes relinquish their telephones and cameras. But they were allowed to meet with Assange undisturbed in at least two rooms inside the building. At the same time, it was clear to everyone involved that such visits were monitored by the Ecuadorians and, especially, the British. Agents in London even set up surveillance cameras in the street in front of the embassy. When discussing sensitive information, Assange and his visitors would write notes back and forth that were subsequently destroyed in a shredder.
Vivienne Westwood, Lady Gaga and Pamela Anderson all visited Assange, as did the left-wing guru Noam Chomsky and well-known journalists like John Pilger and Seymour Hersh. The authors of this article have also visited Assange several times in the Ecuadorian Embassy for interviews and off-the-record discussions. By welcoming a constant stream of visitors, he hoped to be able to counteract the increasingly noticeable consequences of his isolation: six-and-a-half years without sunlight, six-and-a-half years in prison, albeit a rather luxurious one.
Assange also began suffering from chronic shoulder pain. A doctor from Boston who regularly looks after him has been worried about his mental health for some time. She is concerned he could sink into a depression given the rather dim prospects facing him.
Until last December, Assange continued to manage document releases on WikiLeaks in addition to the platform's Twitter account. The most consequential publications for Assange were the releases of hacked emails from Hillary Clinton and Democratic Party leadership, which began in July 2016. They revealed Clinton's tight relationship with Wall Street, the fact that she was rooting for Trump to be her opponent because she thought he didn't stand a chance as well as the tricks she used to outmaneuver Bernie Sanders, her rival for the Democratic nomination.
Once Donald Trump was elected to the White House, though, support for WikiLeaks began to crumble. Left-wing and liberal backers of the whistleblowing platform accused Assange of having indirectly supported the populist Trump by lambasting Clinton. And Democrats accused him of publishing information on WikiLeaks that had been stolen from the Democratic National Committee by Russian intelligence.
Early on, Assange harbored a vague hope that with Trump in the White House, he might finally be able to leave the Ecuadorian Embassy. But the right-wing hardliners that Trump installed in his cabinet wanted to make an example of the WikiLeaks founder to discourage other possible whistleblowers.
Then, starting in March 2017, WikiLeaks began publishing the CIA's arsenal of cyberweapons under the title "Vault 7." Prior to the publications, the agency had negotiated with Assange in the hopes that he would refrain from publication in exchange for safe passage out of the embassy. Ultimately, though, the CIA broke off the discussions after then-FBI Director James Comey intervened and following additional publication of CIA material by WikiLeaks.
It isn't difficult to understand, of course, that Assange remains eager to avoid spending decades in a high-security prison in the U.S. More than anything, though, that hope now depends on political developments in Ecuador.
Originally, Assange was granted political asylum by President Rafael Correa, a leftist who was eager to counter outsized U.S. influence on the South American continent. But term limitations prevented Correa from running again by the time new elections rolled around in spring 2017. Despite this, Assange still thought he had luck on his side. The neo-liberal candidate who had promised to throw Assange out of the embassy had lost. Instead, Ecuadorians tapped Correa's vice president to run their country, a man named Lenín Moreno.
But President Moreno was no anti-imperialist. Instead, he proved keen to improve relations with the U.S. -- and fast. He assigned Foreign Minister Fernanda Espinosa to find a solution to the thorny Assange problem.
To that end, Espinosa devised a rather clever trick. In December of last year, she granted Assange Ecuadorian citizenship, made him a diplomat and put him on the list of accredited emissaries in Britain, which would have given him immunity and the freedom to travel.
Would have -- if the British Foreign Office had recognized him as an official representative of Ecuador. But it didn't. Further attempts by Assange's friends to find a country whose government would accept his diplomatic status proved difficult as well. Only one government seemed willing, but Assange did not want to make his fate dependent on that country's president.
Losing the Link to the Outside
Upon being removed from Ecuador's list of diplomats, he authored a tweet that infuriated his hosts. On March 26, 2018, Assange took to Twitter after Carles Puigdemont was arrested in Germany. He wrote: "In 1940 the elected president of Catalonia, Lluís Companys, was captured by the Gestapo, at the request of Spain, delivered to them and executed. Today, German police have arrested the elected president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, at the request of Spain, to be extradited."
Two days later, the Ecuadorian foreign minister had a jammer installed in the embassy to disrupt mobile phone reception and Assange's internet access was cut off. With that, he lost his most important link to the outside world.
Since then, only Assange's assistant, a legal advisor and his lawyers have had access to him. Friends and journalists are no longer able to visit the WikiLeaks founder and his mother can likewise no longer see him. Assange is almost completely isolated.
Assange believes that an application for his extradition has been prepared and is sitting in the U.S. Embassy in London. He believes that as soon as he falls into British hands, he will be locked up pending extradition or be immediately placed on board a plane to the U.S.
The suspicion isn't totally unfounded. After the whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the mass-surveillance practices of the National Security Agency (NSA) from Hong Kong, a CIA jet was standing by in Copenhagen to fly him back to the U.S. upon capture. Instead, partly thanks to the WikiLeaks journalist Sarah Harrison, Snowden flew to Moscow, where he continues to live today, having been granted temporary political asylum. In contrast to Assange, he can move about freely in Russia. And his girlfriend moved to Moscow to be with him.
The Ecuadorian government cut Assange off from the internet because he broke his promise to not comment on the political affairs of third states, though Assange claims that the pledge was contingent on him being an active envoy for Ecuador. He refuses to be tamed. Everything he's done for WikiLeaks has been, he believes, in the name of freedom of expression and transparency. And he refuses to make compromises when he sees those values at stake. Otherwise, he would no longer be Julian Assange, the anarchist Australian hippy, computer freak and hacker.
'Tantamount to Blackmail'
The embassy also drafted a new set of rules to regulate everything pertaining to Assange's asylum. According to those rules, all of Assange's visitors, including his lawyers, must provide the serial numbers of their telephones and other electronic devices and list their social media accounts. The Ecuadorian government reserves the right to share this information with others.
Furthermore, Assange must now also pay a share of the costs the embassy incurs by putting him up. Surveillance of Assange alone is said to have cost the Ecuadorian government more than 5 million euros ($5.7 million) in the time the Australian had been living in the embassy. Now, Assange is to be made to pay for such things as internet, medicine, laundry and other expenditures.
Fidel Narváez, who worked as a diplomat in the embassy for eight years, told the U.S. broadcaster ABC that the new set of rules transformed Ecuador "from a protector into a persecutor" of Assange, adding that embassy staff "will be forced to act like prison guards." The rules, he said, are "tantamount to blackmail and clearly part of an ongoing attempt to force Julian Assange to leave the embassy."
Indeed, Assange has now become a pawn in President Lenín Moreno's ongoing battle against his predecessor Rafael Correa, who has fled into exile in Belgium because the Ecuadorian judiciary is pursuing 13 investigations against him. Correa finds his successor's treatment of Assange appalling.
In comments about the ban on visitors for Assange in late October, Ecuadorian Foreign Minister José Valencia denied that such a restriction had been imposed. "Absolutely not," he said. "Not at all. He has not had a single restriction. It is an invention. Maybe he is confused."
The foreign minister is lying. Since April, the journalist Stefania Maurizi, from the Italian daily La Repubblica, has filed nine applications for permission to visit Assange without receiving a single response. On May 14, 2008, German parliamentarian Heike Hänsel of the Left Party contacted the Ecuadorian Embassy by email to inquire whether she could have a private audience with the WikiLeaks founder. In September, she finally received a response in which she was referred to the new rules that had been established for Assange. Since then, she hasn't heard anything more from the Ecuadorian diplomats.
'They Want to Destroy Him'
Assange refused to sign the new protocols. He and his lawyer are concerned that if he or a visitor were to violate any of them, it would give Ecuador an excuse to withdraw his asylum status and throw him out of the embassy. Assange's lawyer filed a complaint in Quito arguing that the new rules, which the Ecuadorian Foreign Ministry decided would take effect on Nov. 9, violated Assange's basic asylum rights. A judge ruled in the government's favor at the end of October.
Some of the protocols also pertain to Assange's behavior within the embassy. He was, for example, requested to take responsibility for the "well-being, food, hygiene and proper care" of his pet. The reference is to the cat that he refers to as the "embassy cat," which was given to him by his children. The rules note that if Assange doesn't tend to the cat properly, it will be given away.
WikiLeaks Editor-in-Chief Kristinn Hrafnsson was able to visit Assange last week. The Icelandic journalist brought no electronic devices with him and described the atmosphere in the embassy as "very hostile." He also said the new rules for visitors were being enforced arbitrarily and that evening and weekend visits were no longer permitted. "They want to break Julian," Hrafnsson said. "They want to destroy him."