While Julian Assange languishes in south London’s maximum-security Belmarsh Prison, a British court is weighing his fate. The 48-year-old Australian founder of WikiLeaks is serving time for the minor crime of jumping bail by taking asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden. His fear at the time was that the Swedes, with a track record of assisting rendition of suspects sought by the U.S., would send him straight across the Atlantic. Now that he has lost his diplomatic refuge, 70 British members of Parliament have petitioned to dispatch Assange to Sweden if prosecutors there reopen the case they closed in 2017. The greater threat to his liberty is the U.S. Department of Justice’s extradition demand for him to stand trial in the U.S. for conspiring with Chelsea Manning to hack a government computer.
The U.S. insists that Assange will not face the death penalty. If he did, Britain, in common with other European states, would not be able to send him there. The maximum sentence for the hacking offense is five years, but there is no guarantee that once he arrives in the U.S., he will not face additional charges under the Espionage Act of 1917 that former President Barack Obama used against nine individuals for allegedly leaking secret information to the public. The sentence for that offense could be death or life in prison. If Assange ends up in the U.S. federal judicial system, he may never be seen again.
His most likely destination is the “Alcatraz of the Rockies,” otherwise known as the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility, or ADMAX, in Florence, Colorado. Among its 400 inmates are Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, Boston Marathon terrorist Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, FBI agent-turned-Russian spy Robert Hanssen, and Oklahoma City co-bomber Terry Nichols. The prison’s regime is as ruthless as its prisoners: 23-hour daily confinement in a concrete box cell with one window 4 inches wide, six bed checks a day with a seventh on weekends, one hour of exercise in an outdoor cage, showers spraying water in one-minute spurts and “shakedowns” at the discretion of prison staff.
If Trump’s Justice Department ups the ante to charge Assange under the Espionage Act, a journalist-publisher who has not committed homicide may spend the rest of his life at ADMAX among killers, traitors, and drug pushers.
I have visited Assange often over the past eight years, first at the Norfolk farmhouse of Vaughan Smith, a former British Army officer and news cameraperson, where Assange lived under house arrest for a year and a half. The next place I saw him was in the dreary recesses of an embassy that is a little more than a 630 square-foot converted apartment with no outside space. It was not ideal, but better than ADMAX. Lawyers, supporters, and friends dropped in to keep him company. John Pilger, a few other friends, and I took him more than one Christmas dinner. As each month passed, his skin grew paler from lack of sunlight and his health deteriorated. Dr. Sean Love, who is part of a medical team with Dr. Sondra Crosby of the Boston Medical Center and British psychologist Dr. Brock Chisholm that has conducted regular evaluations of Assange since 2017, said, “He had no ability to access medical care.” Love complained that the physicians were under constant electronic surveillance, a violation of the doctor-patient relationship, and the British government would not allow Assange safe passage to a hospital for urgent dental surgery. While the British tabloid press scorned Assange’s hygiene, it ignored what Love called “the deleterious effects of seven years of confinement, whose risks include neuropsychological impairment, weakened bones, compromised immune function, increased risk of cardio-vascular disease and cancer.” Reacting to the stories about Assange not washing, Love insisted, “This is a complete smear. This is meant to degrade his humanity.” He believes that the “cumulative effect of pain and suffering inflicted on him is most definitely in violation of the 1984 Convention on Torture, specifically Articles 1 and 16.”
At my last meeting this year with Assange, the energy I recall at our first encounter in January 2011 was undiminished. He made coffee, glancing up at surveillance cameras in the tiny kitchen and every other room in the embassy that recorded his every movement. We talked for about an hour, when an embassy official ordered me to leave. In between, we discussed his health, his strategy to stay out of prison, his family, and the Democratic National Committee’s accusation that he colluded with President Donald Trump and Russia to hack its emails and publish them. The DNC was alleging that Assange revealed its “trade secrets,” a reference to the methods the DNC used to deprive Bernie Sanders of the presidential nomination. The DNC is using the 1970 Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, meant to control organized crime, to pursue a journalist-publisher. If successful, it will set a precedent that should worry media everywhere.
Trump’s personal lawyers insist that no crime was committed and therefore, no criminal conspiracy took place. That won’t stop the DOJ under Trump’s attorney general from pursuing criminal charges against Assange, not only for working with Manning to gain access to government secrets, but also to examine how Assange obtained confidential Defense and State Department documents, as well as the CIA’s hacking program that WikiLeaks published in 2017 under the name Vault 7. London’s Guardian newspaper, which had once cooperated with Assange, had accused him of meeting Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort in the embassy. Assange said, “I have never met or spoken to Paul Manafort.” The embassy’s logbook, signed by all visitors, had no record of Manafort.
Assange said that the restrictions and surveillance had become punitive, as there was now nowhere in the flat that was out of range of cameras and microphones. “It’s ‘The Truman Show,’” he joked. We knew the Ecuadorians were watching, but he believed that they supplied the recordings to the U.S. Someone monitoring the cameras must have seen me taking notes, because an embassy official came into the room and ordered me to leave. “No journalists,” Assange explained. That was our last conversation. It was Friday evening. When I left, the embassy closed, the staff left, and Assange was wholly alone until Monday morning.
The road to Belmarsh began in 2006, when WikiLeaks exposed a Somali rebel leader’s attempt to assassinate government officials. Next came details of the shocking procedures at America’s detention facility at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. That prompted the U.S. to shut down the WikiLeaks site, which bounced back. Assange then exposed activities of the Church of Scientology and, in 2010, the illegal misbehavior of the U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan and Iraq — through documents in which the parties indicted themselves.
WikiLeaks’ collaborators were a consortium of the world’s leading newspapers: the New York Times, The Guardian, El Pais of Spain, and Paris’s Le Monde. If Assange violated the law, they were in it with him. While redacting thousands of WikiLeaks documents to avoid identifying sensitive intelligence sources, the newspapers presented the Afghan and Iraq wars in ways that deviated from the official line. One of the best-remembered disclosures was a military video of an American helicopter crew taking delight in shooting dead two Reuters journalists and 10 other civilians on the streets of Iraq. When U.S. investigators discovered that the source of the leaks was an intelligence analyst named Bradley Manning, they arrested him in May 2010. Bradley, a transgender soldier who became Chelsea, received a 35-year sentence for espionage in August 2013. Obama commuted Manning’s sentence in January 2017, leaving the Assange case open.
Among Assange’s subsequent disclosures were the emails of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, no friend of Washington. Assange was becoming a rock star of free speech. Like a rock star, he attracted groupies. So far, so normal. Then he went to Sweden, where two women denounced him to police for sexual misconduct.
Swedish police dropped the case and allowed him to leave the country, but Swedish prosecutors revisited the case and demanded that Assange return to Sweden for an interview. Sources in Swedish intelligence told me at the time that they believed the U.S. had encouraged Sweden to pursue the case. Assange offered to be interviewed in London, where he felt safer from U.S. extradition than in Sweden. The Swedes, while never officially charging Assange with a crime, demanded extradition. British police arrested him pending a court hearing.
Assange was placed first in jail, then under house arrest at Vaughan Smith’s farm. When the court at last determined to send him to Sweden, he requested and received asylum in Ecuador’s Embassy. Conditions were not ideal, but the Ecuadorian president and ambassador gave him full support. Visitors, including myself, came and went. In the meantime, Sweden dropped its investigation into the women’s claims. This left Assange facing only a charge of evading bail in Britain, for which he would receive only a small fine. However, if he left the embassy to report to the court, he feared the U.S. would unseal its indictment against him and demand his extradition.
On May 24, 2017, Lenín Boltaire Moreno Garcés became president of Ecuador, and Assange’s life changed. An ally of Trump in need of IMF loans, Moreno replaced the ambassador with a functionary hostile to Assange’s presence in the embassy. Although the previous regime had granted Assange citizenship, based on five-plus years on what is legally Ecuadorian soil, the new government cut his internet and telephone access, and restricted his number of visitors. Embassy staff changed. The new functionaries became less cordial to visitors like myself and were visibly hostile to Assange. Then, last Thursday, Moreno cast aside the principle of political asylum and told the British police to come and get him. The U.S. presented the indictment that Assange had said all along was waiting for him. And so Assange waits to know whether he will ever be free again, while journalists who published his leaked documents continue working without fear of prosecution and, in some cases, brandish their journalism prizes while denouncing the man who made them possible.