His future hanging by a strand, Julian Assange, the founder of the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, apparently will be permitted to remain in Ecuador’s embassy in London for the foreseeable future.
But the long-term outlook for Assange, who will soon complete five years holed up at the diplomatic mission, is far from positive, despite Lenin Moreno’s squeaker of a victory in Ecuador’s presidential election Sunday. Indeed, Assange’s time in Ecuador’s embassy may go down as one of history’s longest diplomatic shelterings.
Reflecting his sometimes-shaky situation, Assange quickly retreated Monday after sending an insult via Twitter to the loser of the election, center-right banker Guillermo Lasso, who’d said he’d order Assange to find a new home within 30 days if he won the presidency.
In his tweet late Sunday, Assange joked that he would “invite” Lasso to leave Ecuador “within 30 days (with or without his tax haven millions).”
“Who the hell does Julian Assange think he is?” another former presidential candidate in Ecuador, Cynthia Viteri, tweeted back Monday. “He lives by our side and dares to tell an Ecuadorean, whoever he may be, that he leave the country?”
Assange quickly tweeted a response to Viteri, telling her that it was a joke and saying: “All is forgotten and I wish the best for Ecuador in the future.”
The exchange underscored that Assange can be an occasionally uncomfortable guest for the Ecuadoreans. An Australian national, Assange entered the Ecuadorean embassy in June 2012 on the heels of a Swedish investigation over an alleged sexual assault. Assange claimed the inquiry was designed to get him to Sweden, where he would be passed on to the United States to stand trial on presumed espionage charges.
His group, WikiLeaks, has gained renown for a series of high-profile publications of leaked documents, most notably a massive batch of classified U.S. diplomatic cables in 2010 and last year’s disclosure of tens of thousands of emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.
In the past month, WikiLeaks rocked the U.S. government anew by disclosing batches of documents and tools purportedly from the CIA’s cyber unit.
Assange’s British lawyer, Jen Robinson, could not be reached for comment Monday.
Like Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who divulged reams of classified information in 2013 before going into exile in Moscow, Assange has a small core of ardent supporters.
In the long run of history, Assange will not be forgotten. He’ll be remembered in a heroic way.
Saskia Sassen, Columbia University sociologist
“In the long run of history, Assange will not be forgotten. He’ll be remembered in a heroic way,” said Saskia Sassen, a sociologist at Columbia University in New York City. “He exposed some very nasty practices of our government.”
The Justice Department has never announced any indictment of Assange, although the advocate for radical transparency says he believes such an indictment exists under seal.
Among Assange’s recent defenders is Pamela Anderson, the former television star of “Baywatch.” The actress has been a repeat visitor to Assange’s embassy quarters, London media report, and she has written about the activist several times on her blog in the past two weeks.
“Mr. Assange and I have become very dear friends over time. That’s all I’m really comfortable saying,” Anderson wrote March 22. In a posting March 30, she said Assange suffers from his confinement: “He is the strongest person I know but, living as he is, is very unhealthy, demeaning and inhumane.”
Moreno, who served as vice president under President Rafael Correa, a populist who offered asylum to Assange in 2012, will occupy the presidency until 2021, giving Assange some breathing room.
Moreno told the Agence France-Presse news agency last week that his administration would respect “the decision that we made for Mr. Assange to stay in the embassy until he is given safe passage to our country or the country that he desires.”
Moreno warned Assange, though, to be cautious in his public statements “about fraternal countries, friendly countries.”
An Ecuadorean sociologist at the University of Kentucky, Carlos de la Torre, said Assange and Ecuador’s leaders found each other mutually useful, even in a relationship with irritants.
Assange is a very complicated guest because he is a very unruly character.
Carlos de la Torre, University of Kentucky sociologist
“Assange is a very complicated guest because he is a very unruly character,” De la Torre said. But first Correa, and now Moreno, alienated the usual leftist constituencies by engaging in heavy resource extraction, angering indigenous groups. “When you have mounting conflicts . . . you need an Assange around you to show that you are a true leftist.”
In short, it’s complicated, but not necessarily unstable. In a sign of the occasional pique, Ecuador temporarily cut off Assange’s internet access Oct. 15 as WikiLeaks released a raft of emails hacked from the account of John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman, in what U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded was a bid to derail her campaign. The connection was not fully restored until December.
As the years roll by, Assange is taking his place in the annals of figures who have endured lengthy periods of asylum in diplomatic installations. Among the others:
▪ Hungarian Roman Catholic Bishop József Mindszenty, who sought refuge in the U.S. embassy in Budapest on Nov. 4, 1956, after Soviet-backed forces quelled an uprising. Mindszenty spent 15 years in the embassy, finally leaving in 1971 after the intervention of the Vatican.
“He was stuck in a building in a hostile country, his own country. It’s kind of the ultimate in house arrest,” said Kevin Haney, who chaired an annual conference honoring Mindszenty’s legacy in Chicago for many years.
▪ Chinese astrophysicist and dissident Fang Lizhi entered the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in 1989 after the failed Tiananmen Square uprising against communist rule. Fang and his wife spent about 13 months in a windowless room in the installation, hidden from all but a small number of embassy employees. They were finally given safe passage to the United States.
“I think he weathered it pretty well. He came out as sharp and logical as he went in. But he was unusual,” said Perry Link, an authority on Chinese politics at the University of California, Riverside, who translated some of Fang’s writings. Fang died in Arizona in 2012.
▪ Toppled Afghanistan leader Mohammad Najibullah, whom the Soviets installed as leader from 1987 until 1992, lived in asylum in a United Nations compound in Kabul from 1992 to 1996. When the Taliban came to power, they castrated Najibullah, dragged his bloodied body behind their truck through the streets, then hung him from a pole for more than a day.