Videoconference of Assange at the Latin American Progressive Encouter, Quito, Ecuador, September 2015. Demotix/Oscar Garrido Ruiz. Some rights reserved.
Christmas in the Ecuadorian embassy with Julian Assange, who has been confined there for the last three years. A quiet Christmas, with its share of warmth and gentle laughter, a modest amount of alcohol, and a few friends and family. Christmas Eve with Assange’s father John, a successful architect, and Australian like his son. Present also are an Australian documentary film-maker, a Greek-French film director, and a Guatemalan human rights lawyer. Plus the present writer who requested and obtained permission to attend and to write an account of the Christmas of a man who has spent three years without seeing daylight, or breathing fresh air, or feeling the breeze on his face, or glimpsing the horizon.
Salmon stuffed with mascarpone and greens cooked by the lawyer to a recipe that her mother dictated over the telephone from across the Atlantic. For desert, a chestnut tart brought from the supermarket. Sparkling wine for a toast proposed by the lawyer “that this may be the last Christmas you spend here.” Argentinian wines donated by the now ex-ambassador Alicia Castro, the diplomat who has given by far the most support to Assange during his confinement and with whom Assange has established a firm friendship. Someone uncorks Assange’s favourite wine, Alta Vista Malbec, while the Wikileaks founder explains his preference. ”Alta Vista was the name of the server that later became Google”, he says, in reference to one of his close Silicon Valley enemies.
After two days in black sweatpants and discoloured t-shirt, Assange has donned what for him constitutes formal attire: a blue plaid flannel shirt, grey corduroy trousers - both un-ironed - and military ankle boots.
Covering the world
As usual with Assange, the conversation covers the world with everyone taking part. Assange speaks a great deal - he is fond of speaking - but he also knows how to listen. China, the USA, XI, Trump, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Greece, Tsipiras, Varoufakis, Lehman Brothers, Turkey, Erdogan, Chechnya, Kodorov, Russia, Putin, Ecuador, Correa, Evo Morales, Bolivia, Guatemala, Australia, Scotland, Salmon-Sturgeon, the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar, Islamic State, Libya, Benghazi, Hillary, Saudi Arabia, the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon. The Australian film-maker reveals that he is making a documentary in Southeast Asia on how the US is surrounding China with propaganda while building up its own military presence in the region.
The film director says that his next two film projects include one on hiring foreigners in China (“an allegory on the decadence of one empire and the rise of another”), and a second about a dance form developed by a Sufi guru in Chechnya that combines movement with a local version of Islam. The lawyer expresses dismay at the extent of violence in Mexico and the United States, and goes on to compare the executions carried out by Islamic State with those that occur in Guatemala where beheadings are routine and skulls are sliced open to expose brain matter. She recounts an incident in which decapitated heads were lined up at the entrance of a legislature in protest against the legislators and to discourage them from sitting. None of this, however, attracts international attention, she complains.
The gathering also touches on Argentina, and notably on Macri’s electoral triumph and possible consequences. A brief discussion ensues on the late public prosecutor Alberto Nisman, a case that both Assange and the lawyer have followed with interest. “You, of course, are not going to commit suicide,” she tells him half-jokingly - a slight moment of tension that the film director dissipates with an offering of foie gras that he had brought from France the day before. No one opens gifts, but the guests hand around traditional Christmas crackers. The lawyer has brought a record player with some vinyl records in an effort to make things cheerful, but there was little appetite for song or dance. After a few moments of rock music, the volume was turned down to a background hum so as not to interfere with the conversation.
Sex, tragedy and farce
Assange has been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy, which is located not far from Harrods department store in one of London’s most elegant neighbourhoods, ever since he violated his conditional liberty by seeking refuge there. He is wanted - though not accused - by the Swedish justice system for possible sex offences. Four years have now passed since the occurrences took place and it is hard at this distance not to be incredulous at how it all began. According to the extensive documentation on the case that I have examined, Assange is under investigation for “sexual assault” because a woman declared that he had not been aware that the condom he was using had broken during an act of consensual sex, and also for a “minor sexual assault” because another woman asserted that after having sex with him one evening and also on the following morning - after which both slept for a while - he then woke up and again had sex with her at a moment when, according to her, she was half asleep, although later when she was fully awake, they once more had consensual sex. Assange claims that the woman was fully awake throughout.
The charge of possible “sexual assault” based on the testimony of the first woman has now lapsed; but the Swedish authorities continue to investigate whether the moment during which the second woman was “half asleep” amounts to rape without the use of force, although neither she nor the first woman has ever accused Assange of acting against their will, still less of rape. Nevertheless, worried because Assange had not used a condom with her, the second woman spoke to the first woman (the two were friends) and both thereby learned that they had recently slept with the same man. They decided to approach the police, not to denounce Assange, but to oblige him to take an HIV test.
The betrayal that the women will have felt on learning that they had unwittingly shared a lover, the media lawyer that took up their case, an ambitious prosecutor, a feminist politician, the close relationship between Sweden and the United States, and Assange’s own lack of judgment (he continues to maintain that he slept with both women for security reasons - so that he could be sure of their trust at a time when he was under cover and staying with strangers because he had just published dispatches on the Iraq War and was being pursued by the United States), on these and various other twists and turns and complications concerning the background and personalities of the two women, Assange discoursed in some detail during the course of a 6-hour conversation two days before Christmas, to which he added some thoughts on the legal system, culture, politics and history of Sweden in what amounted to a veritable potpourri of tragedy and farce.
The matter may become clearer during the next three months now that Sweden and Ecuador have agreed to allow Assange to be interviewed at the embassy, after which the prosecutor will decide whether or not the Australian has a case to answer. Assange appears convinced that he will be indicted: “The prosecutor will look ridiculous if he drops the matter after all this time. This is the most publicised legal process in Swedish history. Search my name on the Internet and you’ll find it appears together with “Sweden” more times than major companies like Ikea and Saab, or famous Swedes like Olaf Palme and Ingmar Bergman. This case makes Sweden a focus of world attention. They can’t simply let it go.”
But Assange is also convinced that Swedish justice will eventually absolve him, if not immediately, then on appeal. He claims that the case itself is not the real problem, which is why he has largely avoided discussing it in public. “Speaking about it serves no purpose. Because the issue is not whether I’m a rapist, but why the US is pursuing me.” According to an official response to a question from an Italian journalist, Sweden admits to having held discussions with the US Justice Department about Assange, and Assange is convinced that those discussions concerned his eventual extradition to the United States. In the State of Virginia, near the US capital, a grand jury is in the process of investigating him and may already have accused him of espionage, conspiracy, and theft of classified documents. Grand jury accusations have no time limit and are secret (“sealed”) until a prosecutor chooses to make them known. Until then, it is a federal crime to reveal their existence.
Grand juries can order raids on homes and offices, and subpoena witnesses without authorisation from a judge. Some subpoenaed witnesses as well as Assange’s US lawyers have stated that a grand jury indictment is imminent and may have already been issued. Since Sweden refuses to provide an assurance that Assange will not be extradited to the United States - despite legislation that prohibits extraditions for suspected political offences - Assange refuses to travel to Sweden even at the cost of wasting his life in the Ecuadorian embassy. The charge of “minor sexual assault” expires in 2020.
During the last three years both Assange and Wikileaks have not just been fighting off legal and technological attacks, but have also stuck to their core task of publishing secret documents, among them the electronic communications of Syrian officials including Bashar al Assad and of CIA chief John Brennan, the denunciations of a British nuclear submariner, and above all the secret clauses contained in three trade deals (TIPP, TPP and TISA)  that the US is pursuing with dozens of countries and from which the BRICS and Argentina among others are excluded. Assange claims that the objective of these clauses is to isolate emerging economies, especially China, and to replace the World Trade Organisation with a legal, customs, and internet framework designed specifically to favour US interests: a kind of reverse universal jurisdiction in which a single country exercises power while the others fall into line.
The framework aims to facilitate extraditions to the United States for offences committed abroad, and to eliminate obstacles to the establishment of US corporations in the signatory countries.
Still active, but deteriorating
Although during Christmas week diaries are less crowded and work diminishes to make way for more prolonged socialising, Assange’s intellectual appetite and attention span remain astonishing - despite his evident physical and psychological deterioration. During the lengthy session he had with myself and his father - a man of wide learning who knows Menem personally (a disaster, wasn’t he?) and who asked after Cristina - Assange led the discussion from first to last with only the occasional interruption from us, his listeners, when we posed a question or offered a brief comment. During recent months, he has had regular meetings with Slovenian philosopher Slavov Zizek and Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis. Together they are working on the creation of a progressive think tank whose purpose will be to combine innovative thinking with the latest developments in technology. “I’m not thinking of this as a left-wing project, although the press likes to describe it as such. We want it to be open to different ideologies.”
But the deterioration is obvious. The pain in his right shoulder is so acute that he can scarcely move it, and doctors have so far been unable to diagnose the problem - in part because the British authorities will not permit him to visit a medical facility for an ultrasound scan and computed tomography. He has a split tooth caused by biting on something in a meal served to him during his brief stay in a British prison. It needs to be extracted, or at least to be treated, but his request for a dental appointment has likewise been rejected. He has been taking pills daily to relieve the pain. For a time, his doctors gave him morphine but he says that a few months ago they changed the drug, though thankfully he experienced no withdrawal symptoms.
For two years he has been trying to find a doctor willing to treat him more fully than has been possible during brief informal visits, but several British and German doctors whom he has consulted have refused to help because their insurance policies are not valid under Ecuadorian law and also because they fear that their association with Assange could prejudice their professional careers.
In addition to these potentially dangerous ailments, lack of sunshine and physical exercise are evident in Assange’s increasingly pallid complexion and lack of muscle tone. Because the embassy is located on the ground floor, three years have elapsed since he last climbed a staircase. Before injuring his shoulder, he practised boxing with a Wikileaks volunteer who works as a bodyguard, but since then his only physical activity has been to walk or jog on a treadmill, which he does less and less frequently because the activity increases his sensation of confinement and immobility when objects fail to loom larger as he “walks” towards them as they would if he were free. Observers have noted that Assange has lost all notion of time and space, that he spends hours oblivious to the passage of day to night, and that despite his sedentary way of life he has not gained weight because he seldom remembers to eat until a member of his team suggests that he do so.
Since he has received numerous death threats, not least from crazy Americans who even publish little maps for would-be assassins showing how to travel from the airport to the embassy, he rarely approaches the windows during daylight hours; though he does so at night and likes to take photographs of the outside world with his light-sensitive camera and telephoto lens. He seeks out and snaps the security cameras placed round the embassy, and also the vans parked outside from which spies keep watch. Then he enlarges the images and checks the technical manuals so that he can understand the level of sophistication of the equipment used to monitor his movements. One of the cameras he photographed recently and that he showed to his guests on Christmas Eve was fitted with a miniature windscreen wiper for rainy days.
Maximum security prisoners generally have the right to an hour of exercise in fresh air every day. But when Assange asked the British government to allow him to exercise on the terrace next to the embassy, permission was refused. In three years, Assange has ventured out to the balcony in daylight on only four occasions: his sole encounters with the sky and the wind. Twice he appeared in order to read out statements on his legal position, once so as to be photographed with Noam Chomsky, and once for a photograph with American civil rights leader Jesse Jackson. “That last time, I really defied death,” Assange tells us. “Only later did I realise that years before Jackson had been standing alongside Martin Luther King on a different balcony, when King was assassinated.”
Before even approaching the balcony, he first checks out the brickwork in the surrounding buildings to see if, from the vantage of the window, he can spot any change of pattern or formation. Although he can read without glasses, he finds it difficult to judge distances visually. “I feel as if I’m living in a play with people entering and leaving the stage while I stay here watching them go by,” he remarks somberly. To illuminate the conference room where Assange receives guests, he makes use of a powerful lamp of the kind used by professional photographers in their studios. He says that it gives the best light for reflecting colours as they appear in sunlight - “except for blue”.
Those close to Assange tell of his reluctance to speak about his health problems because he does not want to give adversaries the impression that he is close to defeat; but his colleagues are worried. The embassy premises amount to a mere two hundred square metres (roughly 2,000 square feet) and although Assange enjoys relative freedom to move around, that has not always been the case. Apparently, the previous ambassador disliked him; and for a whole year he was confined to the twenty-five square metres of his bedroom where there is space solely for a single bed and a wardrobe, plus a thirty-square-metre work space stuffed with computers and bookshelves which he has to share with his team. There is also a bathroom with no shower, and a tiny kitchen. At present, he has a little more space, and also an excellent relationship with the embassy personnel and security guards; though the most casual visitor can hardly avoid a sensation of being in a place of internment.
For Christmas dinner, wearing the same clothes as on the previous day, Assange welcomes his father, the Guatemalan lawyer, a distinguished American investigative journalist who has lived in London for the last twenty years, and his wife, a documentary film producer and social activist; plus the writer. The American couple arrives with turkey, gravy, potatoes, carrots and Christmas pudding all prepared by their daughter. They have just returned from a three-week trip to India. On this occasion, the conversation ranges over the world economy with Marx and Piketty as protagonists, the latest hacking scandals, Jeremy Corbyn’s political misjudgements, and the malleability of certain Oxbridge-educated journalists. No music this time although the record-player is still there; and the atmosphere is a little more sombre, as if in preparation for the end of the festive season and a return to dispiriting routine.
But during dessert, Assange’s face lights up in a smile when the film producer hands him her mobile. At the other end of the line is Alicia Castro. “Alisha! Merry Christmas! We are drinking your wines… What?” He approaches the window so as to hear better. A couple of minutes later he returns with the news: “She is well but sad at the change of president. She says Macri is governing by decree.” Assange goes to the kitchen and returns with a teapot from which hang the threads of a couple of teabags. He pours tea into five cups.
A few more minutes of chat ensue before the guests take their leave. Assange recounts sadly that he has managed to speak to his mother and his children in France and Australia, “but can’t say much on a secure line.” He says that he can feel no contentment let alone happiness despite the pleasant experience of the last few hours. But nor is he in least embittered, depressed, or resigned. After a moment’s reflection, he summarises his feelings less with an assertion than a surmise: “I might, perhaps, be a little angry?”.
Three days previously, on my initial visit, the first thing he had asked was: “What’s happening with Macri?” He had wanted the latest news about the freshly-elected Argentine president. He had read the Wikileaks cables and been struck by one indicating that Macri had consulted the governments of Israel and the United States before nominating the head of the metropolitan police. Even so, Assange has not given up hope of establishing a good relationship with the new Argentine government. He said that one of the main reasons why he had accepted the idea of having an Argentine journalist write about his Christmas was because he would like Macri and his team to understand better his situation and eventually to support him in international forums, as had happened during Cristina Kirchner’s administration.
The legal position in the United States looks grim, Assange says, and all the more so if Hillary Clinton gets elected. The former first lady has a personal grudge against him because Wikileaks published State Department cables when she was in charge, and subsequently published emails on State Department matters that she had sent from her personal email account. Although it is now clear that he will not be prosecuted as a result (if this were not so, then both this writer and this publication could be in trouble) Assange will be aware that, following months of imprisonment in conditions described by UN Special Rapporteur, Juan Méndez, as “akin to torture”, former Private First Class Chelsea Manning, the presumed supplier to Wikileaks of US diplomatic and military communications who is now serving a 28-year jail sentence, confessed to having been in touch with someone “claiming to be Julian Assange”; and that investigators had unearthed “erased” exchanges between Manning and a person “claiming to be Assange” in which Manning received advice on how to steal documents for publication in Wikileaks without leaving any trace of incriminating evidence. Asked if these exchanges had taken place, Assange smiles and offers “no comment.”
On the positive side, Assange hopes to receive good news from the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD), which is studying his case. If UNWGAD reaches an opinion to the effect that Assange is being arbitrarily detained in the Ecuadorian embassy by Great Britain and Sweden acting in concert, it would be based on the fact that Great Britain and Sweden are failing to recognise the principle of political asylum which is why they are refusing to allow him safe conduct to Ecuador, while his period of effective internment has exceeded by more than a year the maximum sentence that he would incur in Sweden were he to be convicted of the minor sexual offence for which he is still being investigated but has not been accused. According to Assange, formal publication of the UNWGAD opinion, which could and should break the current deadlock, might then be held up by pressure from the UK, Sweden and the US.
This is why Assange is seeking international support and why Latin America in general and Argentina in particular - a country that has earned international recognition for its commitment to addressing domestic human rights issues - could take up his case and even, perhaps, work towards reinforcing UNWGAD’s independence.
It might seem rather ingenuous to imagine that a new government manifestly eager to align itself with the United States might be willing to support a man who has exposed the most shameful and compromising secrets in US history (with the possible exception of the subsequent revelations of Edward Snowden). That would, indeed, be a miracle worthy of Christmas. Assuming miracles exist.
This article was previously published in Spanish in the Argentinean daily Página/12 http://www.pagina12.com.ar
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