By Marwan Asmar
Probably the biggest journalistic story is and will be, about Julian Assange who forced the lid open about the cryptic hands of the American military in Afghanistan and Iraq. Under Wikileaks, 100s of thousands of American cables were splashed all over the internet for everyone to see. It was a horrendous, terrific, gigantic attempt – that succeeded – in showing the underlying hand of American foreign policy in the world and its hard-hitting conduct.
With the cables, messages and emails out, Washington became very angry; its politicians and operatives wanted blood. Letting the cat out of the bag, so to speak, is considered a major breech of American national security and they wanted to throw the book at Assange and send him to prison for at least 175 years under the US Espionage Act. They have 18 charges against him.
The story has since become complex, many angles attached to it. Assange wasn’t even in the United States at the time but holed in Britain, the headquarters of Wikileaks. Little did he know then the publication of the “secrets” – given to him by an American army whistle-blower by the name of Bradley Manning who changed his name to Chelsea Manning after gender transitioning – would change his life. It was to be the start of a long-winded incarceration and a complicated relationship that would entangle, the USA, Britain, Ecuador and Sweden in a web of a “Catch-me-if-you-can” movie plot. It was a nightmare!
Sweden was involved, because the Americans mysteriously thought if the Swedes called for his arrest under the alleged rape of two women, London would hand him over on a silver platter and from then on it would be easier for him to be extradited to the United States.
But Assange was too quick. He quickly realised what the Americans were up to and entered the Ecuador Embassy in London one day in June 2012 and refused to leave. He skipped his bail condition for back in May of that year, a UK court ruled he should be extradited. And for the next eight years the Embassy became his abode and protection.
Until 2019, Ecuador granted him a stay under the premise that not to do so would have violated his rights as the Ecuador Embassy was essentially a foreign territory which the police could not enter and arrest, at least not without their permission.
It was a stalemate that lasted till 2019 when the Embassy finally withdrew protection and allowed the UK authorities to enter where upon the police arrested the by then most famous journalist being hounded and sent him to the Belmarch prison. Up until then he slept, drank, ate, lived, saw friends, colleagues, married his wife-lawyer in secret. It was a strange life, probably never been done before in history. It was curious situation as well, here was an Australian on British soil wanted by a third party that will not go.
It was an incredible time. Meanwhile the Americans were plotting to get him. It was later revealed that a Spanish cleaning company provided for the Embassy was actually snooping, detecting and reporting his every movements and providing reports to Washington. This was in 2017. The plot thickens more. It was revealed also that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was allegedly planning, either to kidnap him or kill him and/or both.
His wife/partner, Stella Moris, is a pseudonym. Her real name is Sara Gonzalez Devant but she changed it to protect herself and her family in 2012. This was because she started working for Assange as part of his legal team. As retold in the Guardian newspaper, she was a bit like him, a traveller. She was born in Johannesburg, with curiosity about her parents. They spent their life fighting apartheid in South Africa despite the fact that her father was a Swedish-Cuban architect and her mother Spanish a theatre director.
By coincidence Assange’s biological father was also an architect and her mother ran a theatre company there. Stella later said Julian told her he lived in over 30 different places in Australia and went to about 37 schools which reminded her of her self for she lived in Lesotho, Botswana, Sweden, Madrid, London and Oxford. Her first degrees were Law and Politics and later specialized in refugee law and public international law.
Her relationship with Assange grew stronger within the walls of the Ecuador Embassy. Before it came to an end in April 2019, the atmosphere became austere, he was no longer being allowed to move freely, was constantly watched and Stella Moris was no longer able to see him except during specific visiting hours; the screws were being tightened around him. CCTV cameras were everywhere spotting his every move. Obviously, he was becoming a headache and the Ecuadorian authorities wanted him to leave.
Once Assange was forced out of the Embassy, he was sent to the Belmarch prison for skipping the 2012 bail conditions; he was sentenced to a 50-week jail sentence. And today, he continues to remain in prison till the judges decide what to do with him because of the continual appeals made by US lawyers to force his extradition to the United States.
This process is turning out to be more arduous, complicated and tiresome than his self-incarceration in the Ecuador Embassy. There is definitely a web of intrigue. The British judges are being cool about the whole affair but the American lawyers are not relenting.
In his January hearing in January 2021, a district judge by the name of Vanesa Baraitser at the London Old Bailey had refused the American request that he’d be extradited because of his mental health as a result of his imposed isolation. He hadn’t been out as a free man since for about 11 years and was locked up since 2018. Nils Melzer, a UN special rapporteur on torture, visited him in May 2019 and described him as physically ill and that Assange showed all the symptoms of being exposed to “psychological torture” including “extreme stress”, “chronic anxiety” and “intense psychological trauma”.
After listening to psychological reports that labelled him as somebody with an Asperger’s Syndrome which is associated with some form of autism and who had difficult in expressing his emotions and failure to communicate, the judge refused to extradite him to the United States because there would be a high risk of him committing suicide. This is because he would be away from his family and in total isolation under maximum-security prison conditions locked up with terrorists.
The fact that by then he had already spent 18 months in prison in Belmarch largely in solitary confinement reinforced this view in the eyes of the judge and hence extradition was rejected. But one would have thought he would be freed but no, he was sent back to jail and thus the continuation of the psychological torture.
Meanwhile the American lawyers acting on behalf of the US government kept the legal pressure up. They have just appealed the January sentence in a higher British court and the judge is yet to make his recommendations. It was a two-day hearing where the American lawyer tried to be “reasonable” saying that Assange wouldn’t be sent to a maximum security prison and that he has a good chance of being sent back to Australia to serve the rest of his sentence.
Meanwhile the waiting continues for a verdict that could take months. The American government and their lawyers say Assange has committed a series of criminal acts but many say he was doing his job publishing news and information and would kill the very foundation of democracy that of freedom of expression.