Whenever a story breaks about Julian Assange, he’s moved digs; from quaint country houses, lodging with posh families in the Norfolk countryside, to where he is currently living, in the Ecuadorian embassy smack bang in the heart of London. People seem quite happy to have him around, kipping on the sofa, or holed up in the spare room, tapping away on his keyboard. He’s the perfect house guest, cultured, intelligent, passionate, and above all else, he is interesting. Although Assange does come with some baggage, given he’s one of the world’s most wanted men. In Sweden there is a warrant out for his arrest, alleging that he has committed ‘sexual offences’ against two women. In the US he’s behind arguably the most high profile leak of Government documents since Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971.
Last month it was announced by the Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino that Assange would be granted political asylum. Great, another move for Julian, this time to warmer climes, it turned out the gesture, however kind from Ecuador, was like an offer of a Caribbean island to a homeless man during the bleakest of winters. You can stay for as long as you like mate. But first you’ve got to find a way of getting there. Given that the British Foreign Secretary William Hague has stated Assange will not be granted a safe passage out of the UK, it seems like he’s going to be staying at the embassy for a while.
I remember during my unemployed spell back in 2009 that there were these elongated periods of time, usually lasting for a fortnight, where I would be more or less housebound. I would only leave the house to sign on at the job centre, apart from that I quickly became alienated from any kind of social life. Sure, I was based at family home back then, and had internet access and three square meals a day, but I began to go stir crazy. This was only tempered, and perhaps stopped me from going truly insane by long country walks I would take with my faithful Golden Retriever. Assange doesn’t get to wander around Hyde Park with a loyal wet nosed hound. He’s stuck indoors, probably walking aimlessly on a treadmill for a few kilometres.
Ecuador’s offer has been seen as dignified, and has won them international praise; given the dubious treatment of their own citizens from the junta era of the 1970s to the Police revolt of 2010, it appears that Ecuador are attempting to showcase themselves in 2012 as a progressive, liberal Latin nation that stands up for freedom of speech. This is a little strange given that President Rafael Correa has had a tense relationship with Ecuador’s media and that they are ranked 104th in the index of world press freedom.
On the 19th of August Assange addressed the world from the embassy’s balcony. Assange’s apparent selfless speech which asked the US to leave WikiLeaks alone, and free Bradley Manning, wisely steered clear of the other allegations that have been made against him. His presence in the embassy did however almost cause an international incident when Ecuador believed that British police would storm their embassy, although the UK were merely quoting from their Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act which allows the government to decide what constitutes a diplomatic premises. This Act came into being after PC Yvonne Fletcher’s death during the 1984 Libyan Embassy protests.
Assange’s possible extradition to Sweden raises some interesting points. For a man who has dedicated his life to releasing the truth, he is in a position where his private life has been compromised, and given the truth often gets severely distorted in the private sphere, to complicate matters further the allegations made against him merge the private and the political, with many of Assange’s supporters suggesting that there is something underhand going on and that putting Assange on trial in Sweden is politically motivated.
Though these are allegations, and the accusers have yet been given any sort of platform, because so far this has all been about Julian, it is paramount that we still treat any accusations sexual misconduct seriously. The concern is that the two women who have made accusations against Assange are not getting their voices heard, because their allegations have been given rubbished, and are seen as having no credibility. Under Swedish law Assange is wanted for arrest, he cannot be charged until he is arrested, he cannot be arrested until he is in Sweden. He has been charged with four offences, including rape.
Could Assange have gone to Sweden? I don’t think this was ever on the cards, especially since there have been precedents set where Sweden have handed over ‘political refugees’ to the CIA, as they did with Ahmed Agiza and Mohammed el-Zari in 2001. Even if Assange had have gone over to Sweden and proved his innocence, he believes he would find himself heading Stateside. Clearing his name wouldn’t have mattered. Although under EU law, consent for Assange to be extradited to the States would be required from both the UK and Sweden. This process would not be like a scene from Liam Neeson’s ‘Taken’ franchise where the victim gets bundled into the back of a van.
The impact of WikiLeaks profoundly changed the power of investigative journalism. Safe’s were unlocked, and dark secret seeds grew into flowers of truth that infiltrated the concrete castles of corrupt governance. Assange’s work is historic, and ground-breaking.
The leak of thousands of US military documents detail a range of unsavoury activity, murder and cover-ups that confirm what many of us feared about (depending on your point of view) the ‘illegal’ or ‘necessary’ occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. It is understandable after the whistleblowing of Bradley Manning, that the US wants to get hold of Assange, and other senior figures within WikiLeaks. Yet the prominence of WikiLeaks has raised questions about National Security, and whether hacking and leaking information can be considered as journalism. Yet, WikiLeaks backed by the likes of the Guardian have also produced a new form of journalism (post-journalism?) which seeks the truth through publication. The publication fuelled public debate, and then came public action, the most notable being that wildfire known as the Arab Spring.
Assange continues to fester in the Ecuadorian embassy; his situation leaves him in limbo. Though he might have an internet connection, and access to the outside world, he lacks the very freedom that he fights for. This doesn’t make him a political martyr, it marks him out as a man afraid to stand trial, because though he has been brave enough to leak the truth, his concern remains that the world he lives in still doesn’t tolerate men who attempt to speak the truth.