He may be on the short list for Time magazine's "person of the year," but many Americans consider Julian Assange to be a criminal and a terrorist. The WikiLeaks founder has been fighting a battle on several fronts since the publication of the diplomatic cables. He has now been arrested in London.
Wherever Julian Assange turned up in recent weeks, there was always a noticeably well-dressed young woman at his side. Jennifer Robinson, an attorney at a London law firm, has served as Assange's legal protection insurance for the last few weeks. She kept several sets of legal documents in her purse, for the event that Scotland Yard or some other law enforcement agency decided to arrest the Australian.
Assange now finds himself in need of such expert legal protection. He was arrested by British police in London on Tuesday on a European warrant issued by Swedish prosecutors. London's Metropolitan Police said in a statement that Assange had been arrested at around 9:30 a.m. local time, by appointment at a police station in the British capital. "He is accused by the Swedish authorities of one count of unlawful coercion, two counts of sexual molestation and one count of rape, all alleged to have been committed in August 2010," the statement read. Assange was due to appear before a London court later on Tuesday.
Assange's lawyers had earlier said that he would meet with police to talk about the European arrest warrant. "We are in the process of making arrangements to meet with police by consent," lawyer Mark Stephens said on Monday.
As of last week, there was no longer any doubt that the Swedish authorities were determined to catch the 39-year-old at all costs. Interpol issued a "Red Notice" seeking Assange's arrest, and Scotland Yard's Serious Organized Crime Agency confirmed that it was familiar with the case.
But like everything else relating to the WikiLeaks founder, this private case has also become a political issue. The man who had sent a shockwave through global politics since the publication of the American embassy cables two weekends ago had become a hunted man.
He has also become the Americans' latest public enemy, after having challenged the world's most powerful nation and made its secrets public for all to see.
'Assange Should Be Assassinated'
While Washington's reactions to the leaks of military documents from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars were relatively calm, the tone has now changed. Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder officially confirmed that the US Justice Department could invoke the Espionage Act of 1917 to take legal action against the WikiLeaks staff. Under the law, the disclosure of secret military information is a crime. According to Holder, an amendment of the law is also an option for the future. "To the extent there are gaps in our laws, we will move to close those gaps," Holder said. At the end of last week, American government agencies instructed their employees not to visit the WikiLeaks website, while institutions like the US Library of Congress blocked access to the site.
Republican Congressman Peter King wants the State Department to examine whether WikiLeaks can be classified as a terrorist organization, which would make it easier for US authorities to hunt down Assange and his supporters. Tom Flanagan, a professor at the University of Calgary and a former adviser to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, offered an even more radical suggestion. "Assange should be assassinated," he said on Canadian television. "I wouldn't feel unhappy if Assange disappeared." Flanagan later apologized for his comments.
Prominent politicians like Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman have also joined the anti-WikiLeaks camp. Last week, Lieberman called on Internet companies to stop providing WikiLeaks with server capacity.
His appeal was successful. Amazon Web Services informed WikiLeaks in an email last week that its activities violated Amazon's terms of service. In addition to being the world's largest online merchant, Amazon also rents out server capacity. WikiLeaks was already using Amazon servers when it leaked the Iraq reports in October, and hundreds of thousands of users viewed the US embassy cables on American servers -- until Amazon pulled the plug, that is.
The Infowar Has Started
Since then, Amazon and Lieberman have come under sharp attack. Daniel Ellsberg, America's most famous whistleblower, publicly called for a boycott of Amazon, saying: "I'm disgusted by Amazon's cowardice and servility." On Friday, John Perry Barlow, an ex-hippie and co-founder of the civil liberties group Electronic Frontier Foundation, addressed Internet activists with the following Twitter message: "The first serious infowar is now engaged. The field of battle is WikiLeaks. You are the troops."
Amazon sought to justify its decision by claiming that terminating its relationship with WikiLeaks had nothing to do with politics. It argued that it had to act as it did because WikiLeaks was disseminating content to which it did not have the rights.
The dispute over servers was accompanied by an attack on the wikileaks.org address. The website's problems began on Nov. 28. Internet statistics site show that wikileaks.org was shut down hours before the planned publication of the first cables by large numbers of simultaneous attempts to access the site. Using Twitter, a certain "th3j35t3r," also known as "The Jester," claimed responsibility for a wave of attacks. According to the Jester, WikiLeaks was endangering the lives of soldiers and jeopardizing international relations. Prior to the WikiLeaks attacks, Jester, who claims to be a former soldier who worked in special operations, had earned a reputation for attacking Islamist sites. Using Special Forces jargon for having eliminated a terrorist, Jester tweeted: "Tango down."
The attacks did not subside during the week. In fact, they intensified. On Tuesday the WikiLeaks team, apparently impressed, tweeted that they were under serious attack once again, at a rate of "more than 10 gigabits per second." The organization has since shifted to servers in France, but it is also beginning to lose ground there. French Industry Minister Eric Besson calls it "unacceptable" for a French server to harbor a website "that has violated the secrecy of diplomatic relations and put people in danger." The Internet company in question has since appealed to a court and requested a legal review.
A Battle for the InternetThe digital slugfest has begun, as the showdown over WikiLeaks becomes a battle for the Internet. American conservatives like Marc Thiessen, a speechwriter for former President George W. Bush, had already called for a similar cyber attack by the US military after the Afghanistan leaks. The battle for the virtual presence of the organization has the potential to expand into a cyber war.
According to Assange, his case shows the extent to which the "privatization of state censorship" has already flourished. Amazon, he says, "caved in" to Liebermann and the US Department of Homeland Security. "These attacks will not stop our mission," the Australian claimed at the end of last week, "but should be setting off alarm bells about the rule of law in the United States."
The massive attacks also have to do with the feeling many Americans have that WikiLeaks is on an anti-American crusade, a charge that is only partly true. The first document that the organization leaked, in December 2006, was a letter from an Islamist who called for the formation of an "Islamic republic" in Somalia. Assange himself had selected the letter with the intention of launching the site with something special that would defy people's expectations. In a declaration of principle from its early days, the group wrote that it mainly hoped to receive documents from repressive regimes like those in Russia and China.
Taking on Repressive Regimes
WikiLeaks' first major success was the publication of a report, classified as secret, by a British detective agency that documented the corruption of the ruling clique surrounding former Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi. Assange had analyzed the report, together with Kenyan human rights attorneys and journalists, and released it shortly before the country's presidential election in late 2007. He is still convinced that the poor showing of President Mwai Kibaki, who was supported by Moi, had something to do with his leak.
The WikiLeaks archives also contain hundreds of documents from countries like China and Thailand, where freedom of the press is restricted. It's only been since this year, when the "Collateral Murder" helicopter video from Baghdad, the Afghanistan and Iraq war logs and the embassy cables were published, that it has seemed as if there were a "one-dimensional conflict with the United States," as Daniel Domscheit-Berg, the former WikiLeaks spokesman who left the organization after a dispute, puts it. From Assange's perspective, this concentration on America also has to do with the fact that the United States is the only superpower, and that it is waging wars on two fronts, in Iraq and Afghanistan, thereby meriting the attention of whistleblowers.
Rarely has an individual divided the world's population as sharply as the white-haired Australian. The global elites are now afraid of WikiLeaks, and repressive governments like the ones in China and Russia are worried about disclosures coming from their computer networks. The WikiLeaks Internet address is blocked in many countries, including Thailand and China.
Modern-Day Robin Hood
On the other hand, Assange can depend on the support of an international flock of followers, which has formed on the Internet and celebrates the Australian as a modern-day Robin Hood: a just renegade, devoted to a good cause.
Time has nominated Assange as a candidate for its "person of the year" designation, which is traditionally used to distinguish the individual who has had the strongest influence on the world in recent months. In justifying the nomination, jury member Lauren Zalaznick says that he has "put journalistic integrity on a knife-blade edge." "What is the responsibility of the journalist to make public or keep private?" Zalaznick asks. "The very name WikiLeaks raises the issue of digital media with respect to politics, society and culture."
The Internet poll is still underway. Late last week, Assange was in second place, with about 130,000 votes, behind Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan but well ahead of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, US President Barack Obama and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Last week, even the Bank of America learned how influential Assange has become. When Assange announced that WikiLeaks intended to leak the internal documents of a major bank, the bank's share price fell by more than 3 percent.
In light of this worldwide polarization, it would be an irony of history if Assange were to stumble over a private matter, of all things: the Swedish sex scandal.
Parallel Affairs in StockholmThe Stockholm affair began in mid-August with an event held by an organization tied to the Swedish Social Democrats. Anna A., the organization's spokeswoman, had invited Assange, who stayed at her apartment in Stockholm. It is undisputed that Assange and Anna A. had sex with each other on the evening before the event.
The next day, Assange gave a talk about the preceding Afghanistan leaks at the headquarters of the Swedish trade union association. A young artist from a town near Stockholm named Sofia W., who had obtained accreditation for the event as a photographer and worshipped Assange, was in the audience. It is also undisputed that Assange and Sofia W. had sex that night and again the following morning, before Assange disappeared.
A short time later, the two women found out about the parallel affairs, discussed their experiences and decided to go to the police together. Anna A. later went on record as saying that she had only intended to accompany the younger Sofia as a witness. Assange, she said, was not violent but had a strange attitude toward women and refused to accept "no" for an answer.
Arguments over Condoms
The statements by the two women marked the beginning of a case rarely seen in Swedish legal history. The public prosecutor assigned to the case applied for an arrest warrant on charges that included rape. She also confirmed the name of the accused when asked by the tabloid newspaper Expressen. Within less than 24 hours, the public prosecutor's office withdrew the arrest warrant and the rape charge, but not a charge of sexual harassment.
Weeks later, the attorney for the two women managed to convince the prosecution to reopen its investigation of the rape allegation. A new arrest warrant was issued in November and the Swedes began the search for Assange. But the European arrest warrant contained a technical error. A revised version now exists.
It is now up to the courts to determine what exactly happened in those two nights. Both women testified that they initially had consensual sex with Assange. But they claim that this changed later on, when arguments erupted over the use of condoms.
Swedish legal practice in relation to sex offenses is more rigid than German practice. Under the Swedish criminal code, a person who threatens to perform sexual acts is to be convicted of rape and sentenced to a minimum of two years and a maximum of six years in prison. Moderately severe cases are punishable with up to four years in prison.
What is questionable, however, is the approach taken by the Swedish investigating authorities. Assange made himself available for questioning in Sweden for four weeks, then left the country with the permission of the public prosecutor's office and told Scotland Yard in Great Britain that he could be reached through her law firm, says Jennifer Robinson, Assange's attorney. He also offered to be questioned at the Swedish Embassy in London or directly at Scotland Yard, she said.
Speaking ahead of Assange's arrest on Tuesday, Robinson denied the rumors that her client had disappeared and was on the run. Because of the latest death threats after the publication of the embassy cables, Assange, Robinson said, was merely keeping himself "in the background." The Swedish prosecutor assigned to the case was unavailable for comment. Robinson had already announced that she would take action against the arrest warrant and a possible extradition.
The publication of the diplomatic cables is Assange's biggest leak by far -- and one that gives even him food for thought. "The effects are at such a scale, it eclipses our ability to survey them," he said.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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