The strange odyssey of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has taken another bizarre turn, this time into what looks very much like a cul-de-sac.
Home for the white-haired cyber warrior is now one small room “which can hardly be described as comfortable,” according to Vaughan Smith, the veteran video journalist who hosted Assange at his country estate in Norfolk for more than a year. The room is at the back of the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, no more than a cramped mansion flat in an Edwardian block in Knightsbridge. There is no garden, not even a courtyard; the only exercise available is a treadmill. The air mattress he was provided on his arrival 60 days ago has since been replaced by a bed, and the Ecuadoreans have rigged up a shower for him. He also has the use of a sunlamp.
Smith spoke guardedly of the 13 months during which Assange was his houseguest. “I wouldn’t describe it as domestic bliss,” he said. “We have a housekeeper called Sue who was remarkable and who worked very hard to make it work. There was very often a great deal of pressure—people’s nerves were often quite stretched.”
The limitations of Assange’s new home may not matter much to a man famous for spending most of his waking hours in front of a computer. His nagging bad dream is that extradition to Sweden to face rape charges—charges derided by President Rafael Correa of Ecuador, in granting Assange political asylum—might lead to extradition to the U.S. to face espionage charges, which carry the death penalty.
Citing the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act of 1987, the British government has threatened to invade the embassy and arrest Assange inside, if Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, “is satisfied that to do so is permissible under international law.” This looks like old-fashioned British saber-rattling; diplomats Friday warned that such action could rebound unpleasantly on Britain if it were to take such a drastic step.
Smith told The Daily Beast that the British government “seems relatively inflexible...a little bit shrill” in its attitude to the 41-year-old Australian citizen, but conceded that at this point Assange “does seem to be cornered.” While he is likely to remain beyond the British government’s clutches as long as he stays inside the embassy, one step outside and he risks re-arrest and extradition to Sweden.
“He is able to work,” Smith said, “and he has a lot of work to do.” Assange is preparing legal challenges to MasterCard and other former companies that refused to process donations to WikiLeaks. Smith said he has already achieved one legal victory, in Iceland.
Smith, who is the founder of London’s Frontline Club, acknowledges that he was surprised by Assange’s decision to ask for political asylum. “I don’t remember discussing it with him, but I’m pleased for him that it’s been granted.”
Although the diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks gave journalists an unprecedented bonanza, Assange has succeeded in alienating many of his former colleagues and collaborators. Smith points out that Assange, like himself, is seen as an outsider by mainstream journalists, and puts the bad feeling down to competitive “turf wars.”