Defamed, persecuted, harassed, and since March of this year cut off from the outside world, in Flat 3B, Knightsbridge, London, the founder of Wikileaks waits to learn the fate of his asylum status. It is a position that current Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno has put at risk, but Assange is built for battles of this size. The former Consul of Ecuador knows him well, and wanted to speak out.
Mónica del Pilar Uribe Marín
Since assuming power, Moreno has made no secret of the inconvenience caused by the ‘problem he inherited’ from his predecessor, and now seems to have made up his mind to expel Assange from the embassy. It is even said that the true purpose of his recent visit to the UK was to meet with British functionaries, agree terms for the end of the asylum, and hand Assange over to British authorities.
This comes as no surprise considering that Moreno regards Assange as, among other things, a ‘hacker’ who ‘made a mistake’ that ‘could cost him his life’, and while he has stated that Assange must be protected, Moreno is undeniably sensitive to US pressures.
He recently sanctioned Assange for ‘political interference’, denying him access to the internet or telephones, and prohibiting all visits except those from his lawyers.
Today Julian Assange – who has never left the building in Knightsbridge – finds himself in total confinement, faced with the possibility that his asylum may be withdrawn at any time. He is also suffering from various physical ailments and, as of a few days ago, dealing with the US Senate Intelligence Committee’s request that he privately testify in relation to Russian interference in the 2016 elections.
In other words, conditions in the Latin American country’s embassy in Knightsbridge are now very different to those that Assange experienced during the six years beginning 19 June 2012, when he arrived seeking political asylum. Ecuador’s government at the time, and its president Rafael Correa, openly accepted his request, believing Assange’s life to be in danger and admiring his fight to defend freedom of information and expression.
At that time the Consul of Ecuador in the UK was Fidel Narváez, who was tasked with accompanying Assange from the day he first set foot in the embassy.
Narváez had contacted Julian and Wikileaks in April 2011 to request that the organisation publish all the cables relating to Ecuador.
At that moment an amicable relationship was born, one which has continued to grow throughout the years.
Fidel is no longer Consul. He was relieved of his duties for issuing a letter of safe-conduct for Edward Snowden without consulting his government.
It was, he states, a completely personal decision, and one for which he feels absolutely no regret. “If I found myself in the same situation now, I would do the same thing again. It was the correct decision, the just decision. I knew who Snowden was, what he had done, why he was being pursued, and I knew how important it was to protect him. I do not regret it. I am proud of what I did.”
Nor is he First Secretary at the embassy, a position that he held until a few weeks ago, when, on July 15, his job there was brought to an end. That day was the last time he spoke to Assange.
Fidel remains in the UK, where he has lived with his family since 2007, and he has not yet decided whether they will return to Ecuador. For now he feels that there are many causes to support. Assange himself would seem to be one of them, since he considers what is happening to the Wikileaks founder a clear human rights violation. He spoke to The Prisma about this: the disinformation surrounding Assange and Wikileaks, what it would mean to withdraw his asylum…
Ecuadorian president Lenin Moreno gave Assange a condition: “stop interfering in politics and in economic affairs, otherwise we will make a decision.” What do you think of the statement?
Unfortunately President Moreno is very poorly advised on the subject.
It is simply incorrect to say that a political refugee cannot have an opinion, that they cannot exercise their freedom of expression on political subjects in general.
None of the Latin-American treaties or conventions on political asylum prohibits it.
The only concrete reference states that they may not incite violence or insurrection within the country that has taken them in. Julian has never violated this ruling. This is a political issue.
In what sense?
In the sense that he is supposedly interfering in other countries’ politics. Is it interference in foreign politics to criticise the Spanish government’s abuses of the Catalan people? Is denouncing abuse of power? Is questioning a presidential candidate during an election, as he did with Hillary Clinton? This is a journalist’s duty. It is not interference in a foreign country’s politics.
How do you explain Moreno’s position?
President Moreno (and his advisers) are starting from a very flawed understanding of what Wikileaks is, and what Julian Assange does.
President Moreno has stated that he is against the interception of emails and private correspondence.
Of course nobody is in favour of that, but it is not what Julian Assange or Wikileaks do.
Quite the opposite: they have created tools to protect information, to allow those who want to denounce the abuse of power by governments or other powerful groups to do so safely, in the knowledge that their identity will not be revealed, and to know that they can do so through secure channels.
Wikileaks and Julian Assange do not steal information. They never have. They protect information.
Are there any other reasons why Moreno does not want Assange in the embassy?
Two fundamental reasons. One: Julian Assange was granted asylum by President Rafael Correa, who today is political enemy number one for Lenin Moreno’s government.
In my opinion, the granting of this asylum was the biggest contributor to Rafael Correa’s international political currency, given the enormous media attention on Wikileaks and Assange. Now that the government is bent on destroying everything the previous administration did, however, Julian’s presence there is uncomfortable.
Another reason is the enormous external pressure from the United States, with whom the current government has a very different relationship to that of Rafael Correa’s administration.
If the impact on Correa and Ecuador was so positive, why is everything ‘collapsing’ so quickly? It is not only because Ecuador and the United States have new presidents.
It is because in addition to the pressure to change foreign policy, I believe that the previous government’s media and public relations strategies in Ecuador did not effectively explain the situation surrounding Julian’s work and his asylum status.
As such it is difficult to create a counter-narrative to the one being pushed by the dominant media outlets, to counter the narrative of so many opinion ‘leaders’, who still today criticise and attack Correa’s work.
Can Julian do anything?
Julian is not supposed to give his opinion on political issues in Ecuador. He has, therefore, stayed out of subjects related to the country (there was a small exception – which Assange has recognised – when Lenin Moreno was elected.
Following the defeat of the presidential candidate Guillermo Lasso, who had promised to withdraw Julian’s asylum within 30 days of winning, Assange published an ironic tweet, which I think was a mistake). This means that he has been unable to defend himself. He has no spokespeople in Ecuador to support the narrative fighting back against the huge quantity of rather biased and toxic disinformation that exists.
What forms does this disinformation take?
In the depiction, for example, of Julian Assange as a hacker, rather than as a journalist, which is what he is. Or the constant repetition that Julian had charges for sex crimes brought against him in Sweden, which is a lie because there never were any. Or that he was being protected from Sweden, who wanted to extradite him for the alleged sex crimes. The protection was never from Sweden, but from the United States. After two years in which Sweden has been practically non-existent in the equation, the original threat from the US is still present, and it is much more serious.
Or the disinformation that interference in foreign politics is coming from within the Ecuadorian embassy. Wikileaks is a worldwide organisation, and much of what they publish comes from other parts of the world, not from the embassy.
And recently there has been a great deal of disinformation about the daily living conditions within the embassy itself.
The labelling of Assange as a hacker is also disinformation…
The United Nations recognises Wikileaks as a media outlet and Julian Assange as a journalist. So do the British courts. So do the international organisations that defend the rights of journalists. What a certain semi-learned elite in Ecuador thinks is immaterial when compared to these organisations.
This is why the fact that they continue to label him a hacker is completely counterproductive for Ecuador’s position in the political and diplomatic dispute around Julian. The first amendment to the US constitution should ultimately protect him as a journalist, as someone exercising his right to free expression and who, as such, cannot be criminalised.
Wikileaks has been an example for other media outlets.
Some experts talk of the ‘Wikilisation’ of the media. Prominent outlets such as The Guardian and the New York Times have created whistleblowing systems, special mailboxes based on the WikiLeaks model, to allow whistle-blowers to provide information safely.
President Moreno’s advisers (or the president himself) are no doubt unaware of this, and this is why they simplify, defining what Wikileaks or Julian do as based on the theft of information.
What would withdrawing Julian’s asylum signify?
It would be completely wrong. In the first place, for the concept of asylum itself. Ecuador would be setting a very poor precedent for the UN’s human rights system which ruled in favour of Assange, which is to say that it ruled in favour of Ecuador’s decision to defend him, and which has ordered Sweden and the UK to end Julian’s arbitrary detention.
Without running the risk, of course, of his extradition to the USA, where he would face the death penalty, or life imprisonment or decades behind bars.
Secondly, it would be a bad precedent for the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which, when consulted by Ecuador, was unequivocal in deciding that a political refugee should not be returned to a country where their life is in danger. Thirdly, the Ecuadorian constitution prohibits the return of political refugees. Julian Assange is now an Ecuadorian citizen.
Moreno has said, though, that Assange’s life must be protected, that he will not allow him to be extradited if there is the risk of a death penalty.
Political asylum means providing comprehensive protection for the asylum-seeker, not just protection from the electric chair. President Moreno says that the death penalty does not exist in Ecuador. True, but neither does life imprisonment, nor the incarceration of journalists who have reported human rights violations. This strategy of simply avoiding the death sentence is unacceptable if they are willing to accept the risk of a life sentence or decades behind bars for a journalist.
A journalist they want to silence…
We are talking about the right to free information, to free expression, of the duty to unmask power, those who govern and the powerful. That is what is at stake. That is the significance of Julian
Assange’s political asylum. Fundamentally this is about defending his right to publish, express himself, give his opinion. His asylum is significant for the protection of every journalist across the world.
How much would Ecuador’s image be affected if Assange’s asylum were withdrawn?
During the last six years, Assange has received more than a thousand visitors from all over the world, and from all walks of life. The Ecuadorian embassy was visited by winners of the Nobel Peace Prize – such as the Irishwoman Mairead Maguire or Adolfo Esquivel –, by activists, writers, filmmakers, actors, political dissidents, journalists… They came to express their solidarity. As such the cost to the country’s image would be extremely high, should Ecuador capitulate.
And what would it mean for those Ecuadorians who are proud that a country like theirs has protected Assange?
A great deal of Ecuadorians will be disappointed with a negative conclusion to the affair. For many others, however, those who have a rather distorted picture of the subject, the view will be quite different, since they believe that protecting Julian comes at an unnecessary cost to their country.
According to what I have read, you are not certain that the Ecuadorian government will withdraw Assange’s asylum.
Correct, I am not certain.
If it abandons Julian, the government loses the international media platform that Wikileaks and Julian provide. The whole world has expectations about the end of Julian’s asylum. The political cost of satisfying a closed, conservative, right-wing government will be greater than what Ecuador gains internally.
Why would the cost be so high?
Julian Assange is not a domestic issue, but an international one. The world doesn’t understand or care about Ecuador’s parochial interludes. What they care about in this international issue is the symbolism of judging a journalist for denouncing human rights violations just because the global hegemonic power wants to do so.
And what would be the implications domestically in Ecuador?
The polarisation taking place in Ecuador will be reflected in the conclusion of the case.
There will be those who celebrate Moreno’s decision, but there is also a huge section of the Ecuadorian population who will never forgive such a capitulation.
Julian y Fidel
How did your relationship with Assange begin?
We had history: Wikileaks’ publication of all the diplomatic cables on Ecuador, during what is known as cablegate. Ecuador was the only country to directly contact the organisation in order to request the complete publication of all the material related to the country.
When was that, and what was your role?
In the first half of 2011. I was Consul of Ecuador, but because of my previous activity as a social activist in the UK, I was able to establish contact with Julian and Wikileaks.
What type of activism had you been involved in?
Various solidarity campaigns that exist in the UK, for example with Latin America, or to oppose nuclear weapons or war. Campaigns in which I knew Wikileaks had participated.
Why did you make contact?
To request, in my role as Consul, that all the cables relating to Ecuador be made public. And this request was never accompanied by any kind of condition.
Was the aim of this request to make the truth known in Ecuador?
Of course. Until then only a couple of private Ecuadorian media outlets had had access to a limited number of cables, and they were clearly publishing with a political bias, choosing only those cables which were damaging to the government.
What was your first impression when you met Assange?
By then he was already a global media figure, and so it was a very interesting meeting.
Apart from the request, did you talk about anything else?
We talked about many subjects, regional and global politics, and what was happening politically in Ecuador.
Did Julian know anything about Ecuador and its customs?
Actually his knowledge of the region was limited. He is very well informed on geopolitical subjects, but Latin America was perhaps the region he knew the least, and that included Ecuador. It was quite an enlightening meeting for him.
What happened after that meeting?
Then came an interview that Julian conducted with President Correa for “World Tomorrow”, a TV series in which Assange interviewed world leaders.
Were you the only person who had contact with him?
No, there were some other functionaries, too. But contact mainly went through me.
After Julian entered the embassy, did you see him frequently?
Yes. From the moment he arrived in the embassy I was with him, almost living with him, because at that time the embassy had no security at all. I stayed with Julian 24 hours a day, seven days a week for two months.
But in total you spent six years close to Assange. How well did you get to know him?
Quite well, I think. Our relationship is that of friends.
Where did Julian stay, early on?
For the first six months he slept on an inflatable mattress on the floor. Only after he was granted asylum was it possible to create better conditions in an office environment not designed as a living space. He has always had a very limited space inside the embassy, where everybody does what they can to respect his privacy. There is an office that is dedicated to his living space and where he has his private workspace. No sunlight gets in. In another part of the embassy he has a shower and a bathroom to himself. The conditions are very restricted.
Is the set-up the same today?
Yes. In these six years he has moved from the original office space to another, where his workspace is a little more comfortable, but it is still in the area dedicated to his private space.
Does he get any sunlight?
Not really. The sun hardly enters the embassy, and he generally stays away from the windows since they expose him to the public, who may want to take photos, or potential risks.
What was Assange’s routine like in the years before the confinement?
In general Julian is more nocturnal than diurnal, perhaps so as not to interfere with the running of the embassy. He is rarely sighted during the day, and is perhaps more active during the night. In any case, he is constantly working, receiving visitors from all over the world, studying, co-ordinating with his collaborators.
And how does he get on with the other people in the embassy?
He spends most of his time in his private space, but he has a cordial, respectful and easy relationship with all the staff, almost without exception. It must be remembered that there are significant cultural differences at play. Ecuadorian idiosyncrasy is one thing, Australian idiosyncrasy another. Assange is a very unusual person, very wrapped up in his work.
What rights has he had?
Julian is a political refugee, not someone who has been locked up because he must serve a prison sentence. No judge has ever sentenced him to anything. He has, therefore, been free to use the internet, receive visits, give interviews. He has the right to do the job for which he has been politically persecuted.
For only two weeks during President Correa’s government was his internet usage limited, and this was very unusual. Since the end of March this year, though, he has been virtually cut off from the world. He has no internet access, and all visitors except his lawyers have been prohibited.
He cannot receive visits from friends?
No. This is in direct conflict with the idea of political asylum, which means protected freedom. It is an inconceivable situation from any point of view, and by any human rights standard. It victimises the refugee all over again, and also affects Ecuador’s image, casting the country as one which represses journalists.
How strict is Julian’s confinement?
It is a worrying situation, a serious one, regardless of the resilience of the person involved. Julian Assange could probably deal with these conditions for a long time. The issue, though, is not how resilient he is, but rather the principle of respecting a person’s fundamental human rights.
Were you able to understand how he feels in light of the situation?
Despite the range of adverse conditions that he is facing, not just the logistical issues (limited space, lack of sunlight, and now being unable to communicate) in a way Julian is built for struggles of this size, those in which his freedom and his life are at stake, in which his fight benefits all of us as citizens. That gives him great spiritual strength.
Will he come out of this victorious?
He has been confined for six years. This has probably intensified his isolation. But the people who think that they can break Julian by prolonging this isolation and cutting him off from the world are wrong. Thinking that they will beat him in this way, that they can force him to leave the embassy of his own accord, is the wrong strategy. Spiritually they will not break him. Physically, though, his health is a different matter.