April 11, 2019 (7:57 am) – By Jon Allsop – Columbia Journalism Review
Julian Assange is under arrest. Mid-morning, UK time, a bevy of police officers hauled Assange, the divisive founder of WikiLeaks, out of Ecuador’s embassy in London, where he had lived under diplomatic immunity since 2012, and into a waiting truck. In a video message, Lenín Moreno, Ecuador’s president, confirmed that his government had taken the “sovereign decision” to withdraw asylum from Assange due to “his repeated violations to international conventions and daily-life protocols.”
One of Assange’s lawyers said that characterization was incomplete—she tweeted that Assange had also been arrested in response to a US extradition request (British police later confirmed this)—another accused Ecuador of doing America’s bidding for financial reasons. As he was dragged away, Assange appeared to shout “the UK must resist!” In his hands he clutched a copy of Gore Vidal’s History of the National Security State.
Assange’s arrest marks the end of his extraordinary, long spell in the embassy. He first took refuge there in June 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden, where authorities wanted him to answer charges that he sexually assaulted two women. (Assange and his supporters called the allegations a pretext to extradite Assange to the US, where he could have faced the death penalty over his work for WikiLeaks.
Although Swedish prosecutors did drop their arrest warrant for Assange in 2017, the case has never been closed: Sweden is expected to provide an update later today.) In August 2012, Ecuador bucked intense pressure from the British government and granted Assange’s request for asylum; at the time, the decision was variously interpreted as an escalation of Ecuador’s hostile relationship with Washington, and a bid to improve its poor reputation on freedom of speech.
Its government expressed hope that Britain would allow Assange to leave the embassy for Ecuador itself, but Britain made clear that he would be arrested the minute he set foot outside. And so Assange stayed put—for nearly seven years.
In recent months, Assange’s relationship with Ecuador soured. Last year, officials cut his internet access and restricted his access to visitors; Assange, they said, was in violation of an agreement he had made to quit meddling in other countries’ affairs. In October, Assange sued Ecuador, which he accused of breaching his “fundamental rights.” Late last week, WikiLeaks predicted, in a tweet, that Assange would be kicked out of the embassy within “hours to days.” In his final days of refuge, WikiLeaks said Assange was living a “Truman Showexistence” under intense surveillance.
Assange’s lawyer says the Americans have finally got their way. Late last year, the US Justice Department accidentally revealed, in a filing in an unrelated case, that it has filed secret, unspecified criminal charges against Assange. As The New York Times reported, Assange “would have to be arrested and extradited if he were to face charges in federal court, altogether a multistep diplomatic and legal process.” The first of those steps, at least, has now been taken care of.
Assange has been a wanted man in America ever since he orchestrated WikiLeaks’s dumps of incriminating government documents in the early 2010s, in particular the diplomatic cables leaked by Chelsea Manning. His publication, in 2016, of emails stolen from senior Democratic Party officials by Russian operatives hardly helped his case. Going forward, journalists will need to be vigilant. Assange’s case is specific, but the way Justice Department responds to his arrest could have serious implications for all of us.
This day was always likely to come. As governments change, so, too, do their diplomatic alignments: since he took office in Ecuador in 2017, Moreno has reportedly been looking for ways to rid himself of Assange, calling him “an inherited problem.”
While we await more information, it’s interesting to reflect on Assange’s years in exile. Mostly, we forgot about him; sometimes—during bursts of media attention related to his work, health, or associates—he cast a long, familiar shadow across the public eye. With his actions on behalf of the Russians in 2016, he chiseled himself, indelibly, into the annals of American history. It’s an extraordinary story.
Below, more on Julian Assange:
- Support: Edward Snowdenand Glenn Greenwald, of The Intercept, were among those to tweet their support for Assange this morning. So, too, did the actress Pamela Anderson, a longtime contact and supporter of Assange. “How could you Equador? (Because he exposed you),” she tweeted. “How could you UK? Of course—you are America’s bitch and you need a diversion from your idiotic Brexit bullshit.”
- Press freedom implications: In November, CJR’s Mathew Ingram asked whether the Justice Department’s secret indictmentof Assange poses a threat to journalism. “Press freedom and First Amendment advocates are afraid prosecution of the WikiLeaks founder could be a slippery slope,” Ingram writes. “Although the shadowy organization is not officially a journalistic one, receiving classified documents from a source and then publishing them is something many media organizations do routinely.”
- Manafort: In December, Kenneth P. Vogel and Nicholas Casey reported for the Timesthat in 2017, Paul Manafort, Trump’s now-jailed former campaign chairman, offered to mediate between Moreno and the US governmentfor the handover of Assange. The Times story followed a contentious report, in The Guardian, that Manafort met three times with Assange in the embassy, including around the time he was appointed to the Trump campaign, in 2016. Other outlets were not able to match the reporting.
- A man without a country: In 2017, Raffi Khatchadourian wrote a masterly profile of Assangefor The New Yorker. Khatchadourian repeatedly visited Assange in the embassy. “Out of concerns about security, and also perhaps because paparazzi occasionally wait for him on the street, he rarely parts the drapes in the daytime, or stands at the balcony. He lives in a continuous state of hypervigilance, believing that the Embassy could be stormed at any moment.”