By: Sarah Oliver
29 September 2012
The court in exile of Julian Assange – cyber terrorist, or the world’s greatest freedom fighter, depending on your world view – is a curiously muted place. The acolytes who pledged to maintain a protective vigil outside the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he has been encamped since June, are long gone. So, too, is the 50-strong squad of officers who policed his first few hours within the red-brick mansion block where the embassy is housed.
There’s now a policeman on the steps outside, and one by the lift in the communal foyer in case he makes a run for a rooftop helicopter. Another stands on an exterior stairwell with an unrestricted view of the clumsily made single bed on which Assange snatches sleep.
But 100 days after he sought political asylum here, the thrilling siege-cum-circus surrounding the WikiLeaks editor-in-chief’s bid to avoid extradition from the UK to Sweden has gone very quiet indeed.
Inside the small and not very grand embassy, Assange is having lunch with diplomatic staff. They are sharing a traditional South American dish, ceviche (raw fish marinated in citrus juice) to mark someone’s departure for Quito – the very journey Assange is now prevented from making by the authorities.
In the flesh he is taller, at 6ft 2in, and more athletic than pictures suggest. His familiar sweep of grey hair trimmed short, he is clean-shaven and wearing a traditional embroidered Ecuadorian shirt, along with bright white sports socks and sky-blue trainers. Reports of a lack of self-care seem wide of the mark.
Had Assange not found refuge within these walls, he would have been sent to Sweden to answer allegations of sexual assault.
He fears Swedish authorities will send him to America to face charges of espionage after WikiLeaks published a vast tranche of classified documents said to have been passed on by US army private Bradley Manning. Australian-born Assange could face life imprisonment in America.
He ushers me into the modest quarters that have been his home since he entered the embassy. The studio room has space for little more than a mattress on the floor, a rickety shelving unit and a small round table with leatherette chairs. But this is, for the time being at least, a cell of his choosing. So how is he then, living in this small corner of Ecuador with just a shared bathroom and a glossy red kitchen the size of a broom cupboard?
‘It’s a little bit like being in a space station,’ he says. ‘I have been in solitary confinement [following his arrest in 2010 on the sexual allegations] and this isn’t comparable to the difficulties in prison.
I have complete control within a small environment and it enables me to do what is most important, which is to protect my work from the attacks it is under.‘The first two months in the embassy were quite positive. We had a big political battle, we had momentum, there was the physicality of the training to use emergency equipment and the day-to-day task of building a life in here.
‘That has stabilised now and the stability is becoming annoying. There is a longer-term danger with all injustices that in continuing they become normalised.’
Yet there is nothing normal about the unique predicament in which he finds himself.
I am not permitted to tell you the precise nature of the safety equipment he keeps close to his bed, nor of the contents of the documents and diagrams pinned to his wall.
But I will say that Assange has relocated his cyber empire, running it with multiple mobile telephones and laptop computers. He meticulously shreds anything that might leave a paper trail. ‘The enemy is vicious, it’s like trench warfare in a monsoon,’ he says.
Rest has become elusive. ‘I work a 17-hour day, seven days a week. Sleep is difficult because of the police movements.’ (Certainly his room is noisy.)
‘There is an absurdly oppressive police presence, which is not a productive way to deal with the situation. I have a blue sky-light frequency lamp which mimics blue sky shining up to the ceiling. I have to have it on a timer or I am like a battery hen, I stay up all night working,’ he smiles.
He rarely has the time or appetite to read for pleasure; among the few books on his shelves are a Spanish dictionary and one on Guantanamo. He relaxes by watching films and TV shows on his laptop. He is currently immersed in The Twilight Zone, the cult Sixties sci-fi series, and is also enjoying a box set of The West Wing.
His film selection is broad and includes The Ides Of March, with George Clooney as a corrupt White House hopeful, and a tale of an Aborigine prisoner’s civil-rights struggle, This Is How You’ll Make Your Bed In Prison.
Assange maintains a strict exercise regime, seeing a personal trainer every other day. Being Assange, this is an SAS veteran, who is also a military whistleblower. He has a running machine, which was a gift from film director Ken Loach, and runs between three and five miles each day, and also does boxing and calisthenics.
He makes a point of eating as much fresh food as can be brought into the embassy by friends and staff. On a ledge I spot charcoal capsules, to aid digestion, and Vitamin D pills, which compensate for the lack of sunlight.
He has also invested in a UVB light to make up for not being in the sun. He tried it for the first time two days before he appeared on the balcony to address supporters and the world’s media, six weeks ago.
‘I put it on so I would look better, not so pale. After half an hour, one of my staff said, “Julian, your face on one side is beetroot, and your neck as well.” I looked like a boiled lobster but the balcony was a major political moment and I thought what, what, what am I going to do?
‘I decided I would have to do the other side to match. My eyes were burning, I couldn’t see, I had blisters all down the left side and then my skin started to fall off.
‘A friend’s wife came in and experimented with everything in her make-up bag to even me out. It took an hour and a half to ensure I didn’t look like a Chernobyl victim,’ he laughs.
That balcony appearance, Assange’s first in public for two months, was the undoubted highlight of the past 100 days.
Home away from home: Julian Assange is now living in a studio room has space for little more than a mattress on the floor, a shelving unit and a small round table with leatherette chairs‘I was heartened to have so much support but also just to see new bricks . . . I was like, “Wow, new bricks, they’re cool!”
‘I miss many things, going to the shops or out to eat with friends. I miss an open horizon, putting my toes in the sea, going fishing, climbing a mountain . . .’
But more than anything he misses his family. For Assange, 41, is a loving son and father. There are hints that he was in a serious relationship before his life became one of legal drama, although he shies away from discussing any details.
He says of his situation: ‘Most normal human relationships are made obviously difficult.
‘Anyone who I was in love with I would not be able to see because of security considerations. It has caused severe difficulties to a relationship that was important to me. Some members of my family, including my children, have had death threats.
‘I took certain risks. If you believe in philosophical or political ideas, you must pay the price and that is OK. But family members, they did not sign up to pay that price, most of all my children.
‘Now Right-wing bloggers in the US have called for them to be targeted to force us to stop publishing. They want to use my son as leverage against us. It is a significant ongoing problem.’
Assange is thought to be a father of two: a boy – the elder – and a girl. He will not reveal details about his children, their ages or countries of residence, for security reasons. He fears what might be done by individuals and states such as Syria which have been held up to scrutiny by WikiLeaks.
What he will say is this: ‘I raised my eldest son as a single father for more than 14 years in Australia. I was a busy father but not an absent one. I have not seen any of my children since before I was under house arrest.’ Then he adds tellingly: ‘The difficulties in logistics translate into the emotional environment.’
He does not believe his own life is in danger, despite the occasional outburst from the US far-Right opponents he describes as ‘crazy patriots’.
‘It’s more a war of attrition: character attacks, the financial blockade [which began in 2010 and has since cost WikiLeaks an estimated 95 per cent of its income] and 12 major court cases around the world. The US wants to show that people cannot get away with embarrassing them the way we have done. But it can’t have me die in a car accident because that is not making an example.’
Asked about British security services, Assange says cryptically: ‘We have had surveillance events from time to time, including after my entry into the embassy, but to speak about them now would be counter-productive.’
But even if he doesn’t fear being bumped off, the 100 days have taken their toll. ‘My health is slowly deteriorating.’ Mental or physical? I ask. ‘I hope it’s just physical,’ he replies. ‘I am taking steps to try to stop it but I have a problem with a lung which is causing a racking cough.’
However, his morale is far better than it was under house arrest, when he spent 560 days under stringent bail conditions in Norfolk and Sussex before he entered the embassy.
(The friends who posted his £200,000 bail, including socialite Jemima Khan and publisher Felix Dennis, have lost their money, but they remain ‘unyielding’ in their support.)‘My time on bail and under house arrest was extremely beleaguering. This less so,’ says Assange.
Yet this modern nomad is more used to moving country every few weeks than being confined to one room. So what belongings did he bring with him to keep up his spirits? He gazes around hopelessly until his eyes alight on an orange felt hat from Kazakhstan, a gift from a friend, and assorted bottles of hard liquor, mostly unopened, also presents. ‘They don’t look good, do they?’ he grins. ‘But at least no one can say I have converted to Islam.’
He has no doubt that he will go to Ecuador one day. ‘I think it is inevitable but I will not be marooned there. From Ecuador, me and my staff could safely travel to and from a number of friendly countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Russia, Brazil, India, Venezuela, Chile and Argentina.
‘We must see the countries of the world as a chess board with light and dark areas in ever shifting arrangements depending on our latest publication.’ But how will he get to that first stepping stone of Ecuador, given that Foreign Secretary William Hague has made it clear he will be arrested even if he leaves the embassy handcuffed to a diplomat? Thus far he has been granted asylum by the government in Quito but not diplomatic status.
‘The UK has an obligation to respect diplomatic immunity and the sanctity of diplomatic vehicles. The issue is whether William Hague will instruct UK police to break the law.
‘If the US drops its actions against us then the situation becomes easy. The risk period for my extradition to the US – though it could come at any moment – is immediately before or immediately after the trial of Bradley Manning, since the accusation is that I was in some kind of conspiracy with him to obtain information from the US government.’ Manning’s trial is set to begin in February.
‘Unless the UK wants to be embroiled with a US extradition request, it is advisable that the deadlock between the UK and Ecuador is resolved by then.’
Assange is confident that the allegations of sex crimes committed in Sweden will be dropped. ‘It could be three months, it could be sooner,’ he judges.
He won’t speak of the precise circumstances surrounding the allegations, saying: ‘It does not do for a gentleman to complain.’ He also fears that any attempt to defend himself might suggest a crime had been committed.
It is not in dispute that he slept with two women within days of each other while speaking at a conference in Stockholm. When they discovered his disloyalty they went, together, to the police.
Assange refuses to say if he believes it was a honey trap or if he was simply unlucky in that his actions gave his opponents a weapon to use against him. ‘In Sweden I was in a position where I was completely dependent on others for my safety, security and food.
‘Without wanting to go into private details, there are many things I would do differently given perfect hindsight. The facts, as recorded in the police documents, make my innocence clear.
‘The problem is that I have been trapped in the UK by the Swedish extradition claim for the past two years while the US has progressed its investigation into WikiLeaks and me to the point where it is ready to proceed with a prosecution, or almost ready.
‘Even if the Swedish case goes away, the US can just phone in an extradition order to the UK. If the US investigation goes away it will be fine, I can travel again.
‘If it proceeds to a prosecution then it is a chess game in terms of my movements. I would be well advised to be in a jurisdiction that is not in an alliance with the US, anywhere which allows me to keep on working.’
WikiLeaks and what it stands for is Assange’s raison d’etre; he remains defiant. ‘Will we ever stop? No. The preservation of history which matters – and the history which matters the most is what happened last week or last year – is about our common heritage. Its value and importance is beyond one person or institution.
‘To destroy such information – and not putting it in the public domain is the same as having it destroyed – is like burning the library in Alexandria.’
Some might see Assange as existing perilously close to lunatic conspiracy theories, for others he reveals dark truths about the world we all share. Does he think the rest of us are sleepwalking?
‘When you see institutions from around the world, not the spin, but the raw documents of titanic institutions like states, large companies and banks, you start to glimpse the common pattern of modern human civilisation and you can see how the world is drifting.
‘We risk moving into a transnational dystopia, the likes of which we have never seen, due to the increasing interconnectedness of states and economies.’
I take my leave of the embassy almost five hours after I was ushered in. Outside, the police have changed shifts. Based out of a mobile command unit parked over the road for the foreseeable future, they grumble about the lack of a toilet – they’ve recently been told not to use the facilities in Harrods – and how all the electric sockets have blown.
For them it’s just been another rainy day man-marking Julian Assange, enemy of America.