When Julian Assange leaves Belmarsh Prison for the Old Bailey on Monday, he will face a court battle lasting up to four weeks as he seeks to avoid being extradited to the United States on espionage charges. The charges, which carry up to 175 years in prison, are controversial on both sides of the Atlantic because of their implications for journalism and the role of whistleblowers.
But the Wikileaks founder, once celebrated as a campaigner for transparency and freedom of expression, has been abandoned by many of his former champions in public life amid controversies about his private behaviour and his political allegiances.
Assange's allies claim he has been the victim of a campaign of character assassination designed to discredit his work with Wikileaks and facilitate his persecution by vengeful US authorities. His detractors portray him as a narcissist who took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for seven years to dodge sexual assault charges before working with Russia to help Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016.
His partner Stella Morris said after a visit to Belmarsh Prison last week that Assange had lost weight and was in "a lot of pain" from a frozen shoulder and a sprained ankle. Morris, a 37 year-old lawyer from South Africa, was accompanied by Gabriel (3) and Max (1), the two sons Assange secretly fathered while he was at the Ecuadorian embassy.
“We had to keep social distancing and Julian was told he would have to self-isolate for two weeks if he touched the children,” she said.
“Julian said it was the first time he had been given a mask because things are very different behind the doors. I could not see him very clearly because of the visors, but he looked a lot thinner. He was wearing a yellow armband to indicate his level of prisoner status, and you could see how thin his arms were. At least he got to see the children, even though he couldn’t touch them. The children were both calm – we all remained seated the whole time.”
Assange has been in Belmarsh, a high-security prison whose inmates include many held on terrorism-related offences, since police removed him from the embassy in April last year. He was sentenced to 11 months for breaching bail terms by taking refuge in the embassy while he faced sexual assault charges in Sweden.
The US sought his extradition to face charges relating to Wikileaks publication of hundreds of thousands of classified documents leaked by former army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. Manning spent seven years in custody for her role in the leaks before Barack Obama commuted her 35-year sentence and she was released in May 2017.
Well, it's their fault for bringing their kids into a battle
The leaked documents included the video “Collateral Murder” which showed two American military helicopters firing on Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in July 2007.
“Look at those dead bastards,” one of the pilots says.
“Nice,” says another as they train 30mm guns on the civilians below.
Permission to shoot
When a van pulls up and someone gets out to help the victims, the pilots seek permission to shoot at the van and they receive it, killing one man and injuring his two children aged 10 and five.
“Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle,” one of the pilots says.
The documents also included tens of thousands of pages of military reports that became known as the Afghan War Logs and the Iraq War Logs, as well as more than a quarter of a million US state department cables from American embassies around the world that became known as Cablegate.
Initially charged with one offence of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in jail, Assange was indicted in May last year on 17 new charges under the 1917 Espionage Act, each of which carries a maximum of 10 years’ imprisonment.
The Obama administration considered charging Assange under the Espionage Act but decided against it on the basis that prosecuting him for publishing leaked material could leave a newspaper like the New York Times vulnerable to a similar prosecution.
The New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel worked with Assange to publish the material leaked by Manning. Wikileaks gave the news organisations access to the material in advance of publication so they could authenticate the documents and remove from publication information that could identify intelligence sources, expose unknown intelligence-gathering techniques or place coalition forces in danger.
To him they were just conduits and possible disciples
While the three news organisations published redacted versions of the Afghan War Logs in July 2010, Wikileaks released them without removing some names of sources. Even some of Assange’s supporters criticised Wikileaks’ action as reckless, and the organisation promised to be more careful in protecting the names of innocent people in future publications.
The controversy erupted again in 2011 when an unredacted version of the Cablegate files appeared following the inadvertent disclosure of a password.
By now, Assange’s relationships with Wikileaks’s media partners were souring, partly because of their different approaches to journalistic methods and ethics but also on account of his personality.
“When he was working with those fellows from the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel, he allowed himself to forget that they were journalists with decades of experience and their own fund of beliefs. To him they were just conduits and possible disciples: he is still reeling, even today, from the shock that they were their own men and women,” Andrew O’Hagan wrote in the London Review of Books in March 2014.
O’Hagan was commissioned to ghost write Assange’s autobiography but their relationship deteriorated as Assange resisted disclosure or scrutiny of his life and behaved unreasonably to those around him. O’Hagan concluded that his subject was “probably a little mad, sad and bad”.
“Julian scorns all attempts at social graces. He eats like a pig. He marches through doors and leaves women in his wake. He talks over everybody. And all his life he has depended on being the impish one, the eccentric one, the boy with a bag full of Einstein who liked climbing trees. But, as a forty-year-old, that’s less charming, and I found his egotism at the dinner table to be a form of madness more striking than anything he said,” he wrote.
In November 2010, Swedish authorities issued an international arrest warrant for Assange over sexual assault allegations from two women. British courts agreed that he should be extradited but Assange feared that if he went to Sweden, he would be extradited from there to the US.
He applied for political asylum from Ecuador, then under the left-wing leadership of Rafael Correa and moved into the country's embassy in London in June 2012. Assange continued to run Wikileaks from within the embassy but the sexual assault charges helped to drain public sympathy and some of his supporters believed he should have gone to Sweden to face them.
The charges were finally dropped in November last year but prosecutor Eva-Marie Persson made clear that “the injured party has submitted a credible and reliable version of events” and that it was the passage of time which had made a prosecution impossible.
Throughout his time at the Ecuadorean embassy, unflattering reports emerged about everything from Assange’s personal hygiene to how he treated his cat. But it was not until 2016 that the liberal establishment that had once feted him turned on Assange with ferocious hostility.
He had never made a secret of his hostility to Hillary Clinton, who as US secretary of state took an uncompromising approach to national security and the pursuit of whistleblowers.
“I have had years of experience in dealing with Hillary Clinton and have read thousands of her cables. Hillary lacks judgment and will push the United States into endless, stupid wars which spread terrorism,” he wrote in February 2016.
Assange also expressed his distaste for Donald Trump but the publication by Wikileaks of leaked Democratic National Committee emails in July 2016 damaged Clinton’s campaign. Wikileaks later engaged in a correspondence with Trump’s son Donald Jr, suggesting that the incoming president should ask Australia to appoint Assange as its ambassador to Washington.
Assange’s critics accuse him of working with Russia to help Trump, which he denies, but some of his supporters acknowledge that Assange can take a “naïve” approach to international relations.
Assange’s lawyers will argue next week that Britain’s extradition treaty with the US does not allow for him to be sent across the Atlantic for prosecution on a political offence. But they will also highlight the implications of his case for free speech rights and the freedom of the media to publish in the public interest information leaked by whistleblowers.
Morris, who says she and Assange will marry in prison if he is not released, has launched a crowdfunding campaign to pay for his defence in what she calls a “David v Goliath” fight.
“Julian is being targeted by the United States administration for the crime of journalism. He helped expose war crimes and human rights abuses which the US would have preferred to keep hidden from public view. No-one has been held responsible for the serious crimes Julian has exposed. This extradition aims to entomb and silence him forever,” she said.
“This is a monumental legal case which is an attack on everyone’s right to know about scandals which politicians and governments want buried. If the US government is successful, the ramifications are unthinkable.”