After spending nearly seven years in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, Julian Assange now faces the possibility of extradition to the United States. With President Trump facing re-election next year, it seems unlikely he will retain his previous enthusiasm for Assange and Wikileaks.
Belmarsh is today’s equivalent of the Tower of London. Built 30-years ago on the south bank of the Thames on the site of the old Woolwich Arsenal, it has no gallows or facilities for physical punishment, but it is a category A maximum security all-male prison that houses terrorists, murderers, rapists, among others. The novelist and former inmate Jeffrey Archer in his book, Prison Diary, termed Belmarsh a “hell-hole.”
Now languishing in a Belmarsh cell is the Australian citizen, Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, who is just a seven-hour trans-Atlantic flight away from an outcome he has dreaded for years – a criminal trial in the United States. Assange’s lawyers are preparing for a court hearing expected in approximately seven weeks. The hearing will decide whether or not to grant a US Justice Department request to extradite Assange to face a single charge related to breaking a password to access a classified US government computer.
Despite the austere surroundings, Assange may find Belmarsh more agreeable than the modest darkroom he occupied in the Ecuadorean embassy in London’s South Kensington. He sought refuge there eight years ago to avoid deportation to Sweden to face rape allegations. Eventually frustrated by his presence at the embassy, the Ecuadoreans cut off Assange’s internet access. In Belmarsh, Assange will be well fed, have to access to a gym and may receive visitors. He won’t have his laptop computer, but he can retain contact with the outside world through the “email a prisoner” service and Belmarsh’s voicemail line, though content will be closely monitored.
Once a celebrity, Assange has become the divisive, iconic figure of the internet age. He is a complex character. To some he is a hero, exposing dark (mostly American) state secrets that arguably should be exposed in the public interest. To others he is a fugitive and anti-hero, refusing to face Swedish allegations of rape and cheating on friends who put up large sums of money for bail. Those supporters included Australian journalist the late Phillip Knightley; Vaughan Smith, founder of the Frontline media club in London who allowed Assange to use his Norfolk farm as his UK address for bail purposes; Tracy Worcester, a model; and Caroline Michel, his literary agent.
When his recent arrest by the Metropolitan Police was announced in the House of Commons by Prime Minister Theresa May, there were loud cheers from the Tory benches, while Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn, a long-time supporter, said Labour strongly opposed Assange’s deportation to the United States.
While Assange and WikiLeaks basked in media attention, it was not until November 2010 that he clashed with the UK government when Sweden issued a warrant for his arrest. Swedish police wanted to question Assange about allegations by two women of “rape, sexual molestation and coercion.” Assange argued against his extradition, claiming that once in Stockholm the Swedes would turn him over to the United States, where the FBI were investigating WikiLeaks’ publication of secret documents provided by Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning.
The London court decided Assange should be extradited. His lawyers appealed, and Assange was given bail. However, seven months later the case went up to the Supreme Court where it was dismissed. That led to Assange seeking refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy and almost a year later, despite opposition from the UK government, he was granted political asylum.
For several years the embassy was under 24-hour watch by British police, ready to pounce should Assange step outside. Four years went by before Swedish prosecutors, with Ecuador’s agreement, were able to enter the building and question the WikiLeaks founder; sometime later they decided to drop the case.
During his early years in the embassy, Assange was able to direct WikiLeaks more or less unimpeded, working on his laptop with a good internet connection, and visited by girlfriends and others close to him. Despite his confinement, he appeared on an embassy balcony from time to time to address assembled media. The ABC’s London correspondent was usually on hand to satellite them back to Australia, where he appeared to be gathering support. Australia was the first country to witness the formation of a WikiLeaks Party, which fielded six candidates for the Senate elections in 2013. The WikiLeaks Party did not win any seats.
The World Socialists’ website claims the London embassy arrest was illegal – despite detectives having been invited in by the ambassador. The party claims that 112,000 Australians have signed a petition calling on the government of Prime Minister Scott Morison to secure Assange safe passage to Australia and avoid his extradition to America. Neither the Liberal-National Party Coalition or Labor will have any truck with these pleas, though few members of parliament are likely to go as far as deputy opposition leader Tanya Plibersek who tweeted that the WikiLeaks publisher had worked as “the agent of a pro-fascist state, Russia, to undermine democracy” and branded his supporters as “cultists.”
In Australia, Assange is often referred to as a journalist. That is an exaggeration, even in the world of blogs where almost anyone can attach that label to themselves. What WikiLeaks practices is not journalism; it has been a wholesaler of information that governments and corporations have, for a variety of reasons, wanted to keep secret. Assange deemed publication to be in the public interest, and many would agree with him. Many also believed, wrongly in most cases, that websites had been hacked by WikiLeaks’ staffers under Assange’s direction. Over the years, Assange had built contacts across the world with groups willing to supply restricted documents that WikiLeaks could then sell on.
WikiLeaks published a trove of secret information from anonymous sources, though initially attracted little media attention. There were revelations about drone strikes in Yemen, corruption across the Arab world, the extrajudicial killings by Kenyan police, and the 2008 Tibetan unrest in China.
It was not until WikiLeaks began publishing documents provided by the former US soldier Bradley Manning that Assange became a household name, helped by feeding both written and video material to global newspapers such as the New York Times, The Guardian and Le Monde. This included classified Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, a quarter of a million diplomatic cables and a video showing US troops firing on local journalists from a military helicopter.
2010 turned out to be Assange’s golden year. He was chosen by Le Monde readers as person of the year and as the runner-up for the same title in Time magazine. The Sydney Peace Foundation recognised him with a gold medal, previously awarded to only three men – Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Buddhist leader Daisaku Ikeda. The Italian edition of Rolling Stone called Assange rock star of the year.
Not everyone was so impressed. The then Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard described his activities as “illegal”, as indeed many of them were, in that he was receiving and peddling stolen goods. But it was in the United States that Assange raised the most ire. Criminal investigations were initiated by various branches of government. There were a few well-publicised demands that, if brought to America, the WikiLeaks founder should be tried in a jurisdiction that still has the death penalty. Mike Pompeo, then director of the CIA, described WikiLeaks as “a non-state hostile intelligence service, often abetted by state actors like Russia.”
Like many of us, Assange had read the brilliant book by Andy Grove, founder of Intel, Only the Paranoid Survive, and it is perhaps not surprising he was paranoid that the United States was “out to get him” and he felt he had to fight extradition at all costs. Had he flown to Sweden to face the rape allegations, it is highly unlikely he would have been shunted on to the United States, a notion dismissed as “bunkum” last week by the editor of The Guardian and dismissed at the time by Sweden’s former prime minister and foreign minister, Carl Bildt.
Now, as he waits in Belmarsh, the prospect of facing a jury in America is a distinct probability. Prime Minister May said pointedly that “no one is above the law,” while insisting that it will not be politicians but the courts that decide his fate. Paranoia will be at the heart of his lawyers’ arguments; they will argue that although the indictment is one that carries a maximum five-year sentence, once Assange is on US soil American prosecutors will throw the book at him.
The extradition hearings could go on for a year or more. And that is where there may be another twist in the complicated Assange story. With a presidential election approaching, President Donald Trump will not want to be reminded of WikiLeaks’ significant role in the release of thousands of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee and provided to Russian agents just before the 2016 election. The revelations embarrassed the party and its candidate Hillary Clinton and were confirmed by the Special Counsel Robert Mueller in his report on Russian interference. When the leaked emails were released a joyful Trump proclaimed, “I love WikiLeaks.” This is a declaration he may well not wish to be reminded of.
Colin Chapman is a writer, broadcaster and public speaker, who specialises in geopolitics, international economics and global media issues. He is a former president of AIIA NSW and was appointed a fellow of the AIIA in 2017.
This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.