LONDON - Had Julian Assange just jumped over the railings around the ground-floor balcony of the Ecuadorean Embassy in London to shake hands with his supporters gathered in the little side street behind Harrods department store, he would have immediately been arrested by one of the police officers standing around the building. Two months after finding refuge in the embassy and the ensuing police siege, the first public appearance by the WikiLeak’s founder, wanted in Sweden for questioning over allegations of rape, took a comic turn. Many were reminded of the famous scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and began shouting “release Julian, release Julian.” Followed by cries of “I am Julian, I am Julian.” The emergence of the fugitive had a farcical atmosphere.
They stood there waiting for hours, waiting for him. A bizarre mixture of aging left-wing radicals, young anarchists and hackers, Latin American nationals, curious passersby and the media, sweating in the uncustomary August heat, craning their heads for a first sight of the man through a window. When Assange finally appeared, wearing a light-blue buttoned down and vermillion tie, he seemed very calm, almost detached and not connected at all with the emotions of the packed mass awaiting him.
He spoke from a prepared text for ten minutes, thanking the government of Ecuador, which last week granted him political asylum and his supporters who according to him had prevented by their presence the police breaking in and arresting him last week. He blamed the U.S. administration for making war on the freedom of speech saying that “as WikiLeaks stands under threat, so does the freedom of expression and the health of all our societies.” He called upon Barack Obama “to do the right thing. The United States must renounce its witch-hunt against WikiLeaks." He also called for the release of Private Bradley Manning, the American soldier suspected of leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks, a human-rights activist from Bahrain and the members of Russian punk-rock band Pussy Riot.
He ended his short speech with an exhortation for joint struggle against “oppression” and was swallowed back in the embassy without even bidding farewell to his supporters. He didn’t refer even once to the rape allegations against him, or the criticism of his choice of refuge – a question not distinguished in its defense of a free press. He gave no indication of his future plans, whether he plans to remain incarcerated in the little diplomatic legation.
It was a vague ending to a vague event in which it wasn’t even clear who was the enemy – the police? The government? The administration? Or maybe the press? In less than two years, Assange has gone from being the darling of the international media, Time readers’ Man of the Year, credited by some columnists for having kicked off the “Arab Spring.” Now the same Assange is a wanted fugitive, closed in a little room, with most of the media organizations who previously cooperated with him, fighting for first access to the WikiLeaks-held documents, now portraying him as a suspected rapist, a collaborator with dark regimes, a megalomaniac estranged from most of the senior members of the organization he founded and put innocent lives at danger and tainted by anti-Semitism. Even radical movements such as Occupy have had trouble supporting him, when many of their members feel uncomfortable with the allegations against him.
Assange and the organization he founded in late 2006 heralded a new age of open information, a threat to governments hiding from their citizens the way they wage war and pursue foreign policy and to multinational corporations acting as if above the law. WikiLeaks was soon perceived as a hostile entity to the U.S. administration and its War on Terror, when it published the operating manual of Guantanamo Prison base, including orders not to allow certain detainees to meet with the ICRC, chilling footage of air-strikes in Iraq and hundreds of thousands of files regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. All allegedly received from young Bradley Manning who is also implicated in the leak of a quarter of a million diplomatic cables.
The publication of the U.S. State Department cables in November 2010 proved to be WikiLeak’s high-point. The internal messages from American diplomats at every corner of the globe allowed an unprecedented glimpse of the way the U.S. conducts its foreign relations and the personal opinions of many world leaders, including the private wishes of Arabian Gulf potentates that Israel attack Iran, and the views of former Mossad Chief Meir Dagan on that issue. A detailed account of the corruption of the ruling regime in Tunisia was quickly translated into Arabic by local bloggers and according to some sources, acted as a catalyst for the mass demonstrations that brought down Tunisian president Ben Ali and sparked off the wave of revolutions throughout Arab countries.
WikiLeaks enraged the U.S. administrations but until early 2011, the organization and its founder still enjoyed broad support from the mainstream media, including prizes from such respectable bodies as the Economist and Amnesty International. Large newspapers partnered in revealing the State Department cables, including the New York Times, the Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and El Pais. But the honeymoon was soon over and almost all the media organizations fell out with Assange, mainly over differences of opinion on timing and the way the documents would be presented. The newspapers demanded to go over each document carefully, redacting names of private citizens who could be targeted by their governments. In addition, some were becoming concerned over a few of Assange’s associates, especially WikiLeaks’ representative in Russia, notorious Holocaust-denier and anti-Semitic writer, Israel Shamir, who was defended by Assange.
A report on the Assange-Shamir relationship in British bi-weekly Private Eye lead to an angry phone call to the editor from Assange who complained of a cabal of “Jewish” journalists out to bring WikiLeaks down. In addition to accusations of anti-Semitism, Assange was now being criticized by senior members of WikiLeaks who blamed him for high-handed and negligent management that was putting sources and documents at risk. Following the departure of a number of veteran members, a computer file containing the entire State Department trove, without any redactions, was leaked on the web in September 2011. Among the names revealed were the details and addresses of all remaining members of the Jewish community in Baghdad. WikiLeaks by this time was facing not only criticism, but also constant warfare on the web; mysterious powers were trying to block its internet servers and many credit-card companies refused to process donations to the organization.
But the most damaging development for Assange personally was the accusation two years ago by two women in Sweden, who had hosted him in their homes that he had insisted on having sexual relations with them despite their pleas that he desist. Swedish police at first released Assange after initial questioning and allowed him to travel to Britain, but decided that he was needed for further questioning as a rape suspect and demanded his extradition. Since then, Assange has for most of the last two years been under house-arrest at the homes of various supporters, while combating the extradition through British courts. In late May, he lost his appeal at the Supreme Court. Three weeks later, instead of arriving at a police station to begin extradition, he entered the Ecuadorean Embassy.
Assange has never directly responded to the allegations, but he and his remaining supporters are convinced that they are trumped-up and that their real motive is to have him extradited from Sweden to the U.S. where a national security indictment has already been prepared against him, they claim. One that could carry with it the death penalty.
Throughout the process, his supporter camp has dwindled, while Assange has retained the support of a number of radical-left celebrities, most of the news organizations that once cooperated with him have long ago ceased contacts. WikiLeaks have continued to post documents on the web, with less frequency than before but so far have failed to achieve a similar effect than in the past. Its media partners are mainly small fringe publications and the height of absurd was reached two months ago when one of the partners in the publication of 2.4 million Syrian emails was Lebanese Al-Akhbar, a newspaper that supports both Hezbollah and Syrian president Bashar Assad.
Assange was also happy to work for regimes that are not noted fans of a free press. Earlier this year he announced that he would be fronting a personal television show for Kremlin-owned Russia Today network – the debut program was an exclusive interview with a cheerful Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah. Human rights activists have also expressed wonder at the fact that the champion of open information has chosen to seek refuge from the government of Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, whose administration has been prosecuting critical reporters and editors.
Little wonder that the Assange supporters gathered on Sunday outside the embassy were rather hostile to the members of the press. When the organizers allowed some questions before his appearance, only supporters got to pose them, no professional journalists. When one of the warm-up speakers, former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, who had been fired after criticizing western support of the local regime, reminisced that he had also been accused of sexual impropriety, he accused “the disgusting, complacent, spoon-fed mainstream media, only they can believe such things.”
Leaving the demonstrations, a young woman named Alyson was handing out leaflets explaining how members of the public could support Assange. Was she not bothered by the rape allegations? “I don’t know all the details,” she answered, “but I am surer he has not been given due process.” And what about the human rights record of the Ecuadorean government? “What would you do in Julian’s place? He hasn’t got anyone left to turn to, he can’t be very picky.”
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