Julian Assange's seven strange years in self-imposed isolation

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was arrested by British police on April 11, 2019 after Ecuador decided to end his political asylum.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was arrested by British police on April 11, 2019 after Ecuador decided to end his political asylum.PHOTO: NYTIMES

BRUSSELS (NYTIMES) - The spectacle of Julian Assange, bearded and haggard, resisting arrest while London police officers dragged him through the street, punctuated the end of seven confounding years inside the Ecuadorean Embassy, where he lived with his cat in a small corner room as the world's most famous self-proclaimed political refugee.

Assange, 47, has long fashioned himself as a crusader for revealing secrets. The Internet group he founded, WikiLeaks, published caches of classified US government communications, as well as e-mails hacked by Russian intelligence clearly intended to damage the presidential candidacy of Mrs Hillary Clinton.

Though arrested on Thursday (April 11) morning by the British for skipping bail, Assange was immediately charged in the United States for conspiracy to hack a government computer.

To supporters, Assange is a martyr and champion of free speech. To the US government, he is a pariah and a lackey of the Kremlin.

But it was the hardened opinion of Ecuador's government that perhaps mattered most. He had become an unwanted houseguest.

At the tiny red-brick embassy, he continued to run his Internet group, conducted news conferences before hundreds of fawning admirers from a balcony, rode his skateboard in the halls, and played host to a parade of visitors, including Lady Gaga and Pamela Anderson, a rumoured lover who brought vegan sandwiches.

On Thursday, Anderson sent out a batch of Twitter messages attacking the arrest as a "vile injustice" and called Britain and the US "devils and liars and thieves".

 
 
 
 
 

In interviews with The New York Times in 2016, as part of a long look at his ties to Russia, Assange denied any link to Russian intelligence, in particular regarding the leaked Democratic e-mails.

Mrs Clinton and the Democrats were "whipping up a neo-McCarthyist hysteria about Russia", he said. There is "no concrete evidence" that what WikiLeaks publishes comes from intelligence agencies, he said, even as he indicated that he would happily accept such material.

Small as they were, Assange's living quarters at the embassy, close to the lavish self-indulgence of Harrods, the famous department store, did not cramp his desire to remain in the limelight.

Assange had an office equipped with a bed, sunlamp, phone, computer, kitchenette, shower, treadmill and bookshelves. Three years ago, one person familiar with the set-up called it "a gas station with two attendants".

Mr Vaughan Smith, who had been a long-time supporter of Assange and helped put up his bail money, said: "Julian's a big bloke, with big bones, and he fills the room physically and intellectually."

"It's a tiny embassy with a tiny balcony," he added, "small, hot and with not great air flow, and it must be jolly difficult for everyone there."

But from there, Assange for years held court for admirers and famous curiosity seekers, among them footabll star Eric Cantona, and Mr Nigel Farage, the pro-Brexit radio host and former head of UK Independence Party.

Still, Assange's isolation was wearing on him, a friend said on Thursday, especially the long, lonely weekends in an essentially empty embassy he could not leave.

Even his friends have described him as difficult, a narcissist with an outsized view of his importance and a disinterest in mundane matters like personal hygiene.

 
 
 
 

He was becoming deeply depressed and wondered about simply walking out, the friend said, speaking on condition of anonymity. And relations with his hosts were becoming deeply strained, even adversarial.

A copy of a 2014 letter from Mr Juan Falconi Puig, then Ecuador's ambassador to Britain, to the Foreign Ministry, seen by The New York Times, outlined the growing resentment between the diplomats and Assange over his behaviour at the embassy.

Among Mr Falconi's top concerns was Assange's penchant for riding a skateboard and playing football with visitors. His skateboarding, Mr Falconi said, had "damaged floors, walls and doors".

The ambassador said the football games had destroyed embassy equipment. When an embassy security agent stopped the game and took away the ball, Assange "began to shake, insult and push the agent", reclaimed the ball and then "launched the ball at his body".

The letter said Assange had invited a television reporter to interview them at the embassy and had showed the visitor off-limits parts of the building.

At one point, according to the letter, Assange used the alarm setting on a megaphone "to attract the police" to record them for the show.

"This last action, in the middle of the night, was a clear attempt to annoy the police," Mr Falconi wrote.

Another time, the letter said, Assange "violently hit the embassy control room door" demanding in a "threatening manner" that one of the guards come out to speak to him.

The guards came out, only to be harassed by Assange, who yelled and shoved them, Mr Falconi wrote.

Assange's long presence in the embassy, long after the Ecuadorean president who granted him political asylum had been replaced, finally became too much for the Ecuadorean government. President Lenin Moreno, elected in 2017, explained the decision on Twitter and in a video.

"In a sovereign decision, Ecuador withdrew the asylum status to Julian Assange after his repeated violations to international conventions and daily-life protocols," he said.

He accused Assange of having installed forbidden "electronic and distortion equipment", accessing the embassy's security files without permission, blocking the embassy's security cameras and mistreating its personnel, including guards.

In March last year, the Ecuadorean government severed his Internet access, saying that he had violated an agreement to stop commenting on, or trying to influence, the politics of other countries.

The government also limited his visitors and required him to clean his bathroom and look after his cat. Assange then sued the Ecuadorean government in October, claiming that it was violating his rights.

He hired Spanish human rights jurist Baltasar Garzon, who filed suit against the Ecuadorean government in its own courts, saying Assange's rights were violated. He also filed a second complaint with the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, an international body that mediates rights issues.

Both cases were rejected by officials, and further angered Mr Moreno's government.

A recent leak of papers last month related to Mr Moreno, which the government blamed on WikiLeaks, further angered officials before Assange's eviction. The vast trove of e-mails, text messages and photos were known in Ecuador as the INA papers, named after a company linked to the president's brother.

The leaked papers, first published by an independent Ecuadorean news site, described an extravagant life of the president and his family that included lavish dinners, expensive watches and trips around the world.

They included text messages of the president's wife telling friends about family trips to Switzerland and New York and private pictures of Mr Moreno, including one of him in a hotel room bed with a lobster meal. WikiLeaks denied involvement in the leaks, though it promoted the story on its Twitter site.

Days later, Mr Moreno said that Assange had "repeatedly violated" the terms of his asylum and that Assange could not "hack private accounts or phones".

"Finally," Mr Moreno said in his statement announcing the withdrawal of asylum, "two days ago, WikiLeaks, Mr Assange's allied organisation, threatened the government of Ecuador. My government has nothing to fear and does not act under threats."

Mr Moreno appeared to be referring to an effort by WikiLeaks to reveal the scale of surveillance of Assange within the embassy.

The editor in chief of WikiLeaks, Mr Kristinn Hrafnsson, charged in a news conference this week that there had been "extensive spying" on Assange, and that Ecuador was part of a plot to extradite him to the US.

"What we have established is security has monitored his every move and every meeting with visitors," Mr Hrafnsson said. "We also know there was a request to hand over visit logs and video recordings from within the embassy... We believe this has been handed over to the Trump administration."

Mr Hrafnsson also charged that the spying was part of a €3 million (S$4.5 million) extortion plot against Assange involving sex tapes.

The British police arrested Assange on Thursday on charges that he had jumped bail after his initial arrest in 2010 on a Swedish warrant.

The Swedes had wanted to question Assange on allegations of sexual misconduct and rape; in June 2012, Assange, even then fearing extradition to the US, left his backers to lose their bail money while he successfully sought political asylum in the Ecuadorean embassy.

Only in May 2017, after many attempts to secure Assange and finally interview him on those charges, did Sweden give up and drop its arrest warrant.

Assange also gradually offended some of his early supporters, like former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden and heiress Jemima Goldsmith Khan. He suffered from vitamin D deficiency, dental problems and depression. For some, he became a sort of joke, and many mocked his fear of extradition.

But there were times when thousands of supporters cheered Assange's work and what many considered his martyrdom in the name of individual rights and Internet freedom. Hundreds would sometimes gather outside the embassy, to hear Assange address them from that tiny balcony.

British police officers arrived at the embassy on Thursday at about 9.15am, where the ambassador offered to serve Assange documentation revoking his asylum. He didn't go easily.

He resisted arrest and had to be restrained by officers, who struggled to handcuff him and received assistance from officers outside the embassy.

"This is unlawful, I'm not leaving," he told them, according to the account given at the Westminster Magistrates Court, where Assange later appeared, his silver hair tied in a bun, his tight lips visible behind a long, white beard, and looking composed in a navy suit.

Outside, a flock of cameras pointed towards the guarded entrance, and a group of protesters chanted feebly "Free, free, free Assange". After Assange took his seat in court, a supporter wearing a scruffy fluorescent jacket gave him an enthusiastic thumbs-up from the public gallery.

Assange turned his head clinically toward the gallery, raised his arm, and returned the gesture.

While awaiting the lawyers to enter, Assange read from a book, which he raised for the media to see: History Of The National Security State by Gore Vidal.