Defending Assange 5: Ecuador’s excuses

This is Part 5 in a series on Julian Assange’s legal case and trial-by-media:

  • Part 1 discussed the value of Wikileaks
  • Part 2 discussed the Obama administration’s secret legal action
  • Part 3 discussed the Swedish sexual assault case
  • Part 4 discussed the Russian conspiracy accusations

When Ecuador granted asylum to Julian Assange in 2012, the asylum was unconditional, and Ecuador stated very clearly that the reasons were political:

The judicial evidence shows clearly that, given an extradition to the United States, Mr. Assange would not have a fair trial, he could be judged by a special or military court, and it is not unlikely that he would receive a cruel and demeaning treatment and he would be condemned to a life sentence or the death penalty, which would not respect his human rights.

After Lenin Moreno became the new President of Ecuador in 2017, he revealed he wants to move closer to the US to pursue free trade policies. Moreno actually did meet with Manafort, the same Trump associate accused of meeting with Assange. According to the former Ecuadorian President, they were negotiating the handover of Assange, as well as to isolate Venezuela and exonerate Chevron for its oil spills. According to the New York Times, Moreno offered to trade Assange for debt relief – and what do you know, just last month Ecuador received a $4.2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.

Under Moreno, Ecuador has treated Assange more like a prisoner than a refugee. They could not legally expel him because the former Correa government had granted him Ecuadorian citizenship, but they did impose strict conditions on his asylum. Normally asylum is considered a human right and not based on conditions. For over a year they cut off his internet access after he tweeted about suppression of the Catalan independence movement:

So Assange has spent the last year interacting almost entirely with officials who were looking for any excuse to throw him out. Since then, Assange’s only instance of communication with the outside world has been leaked testimony pleading with an Ecuadorian court:

I have been… isolated from most people for seven months, including electronic communication, the telephone etc, from my young children. That’s been a difficult experience and it has also interfered with my ability to work, to make a living, and with my deeply held principles that I have fought for all my life, which is to uphold the right of freedom of expression, the right for people to know, the right of the freedom of the press and the right for everyone to participate in their society and the broader society…

There have been attempts by people to get into this embassy through the windows at night. It appears that there may have even been an attempt last night, at 4.30am. I am an assassination risk. It is not a joke. It is a serious business…

[I’ve] been denied since January 28th nearly all visitors other than my lawyers – Parliamentarians, figures from Human Rights Watch, the General Counsel of Human Rights Watch, investigating this situation…

It cannot be that a journalist giving their opinions on a social network is effectively considered to be a crime and where they would be expelled and placed in prison, in the UK initially and then in the United States for 45 years to life…

It is the Ecuadorian Government positioning itself in order to violate the asylum. Positioning itself in terms of its public discourse. Gagging me in order to rebut the allegations that it is making in public that it is apparently deliberately leaking out to the press selective scandalous material.

Assange quoted at length from the Ecuadorian constitution to support his case, but his plea was denied. They did restore very limited access to communications, but still banned the political refugee from talking about politics.

The Ecuadorian Ambassador repeatedly sent Assange letters like this:

Once again, I must write in regards of a new display of inappropriate behavior shown by you, which occurred on Friday 1st of February, during the visit you received that afternoon.

It has come to my knowledge that you entered a studio lamp, normally used for television production, into the meeting room of the Embassy, where the visit was taking place, and deliberately pointed its light towards one of the security cameras operating in the room. This was done with the clear intention of preventing it to fulfill its purpose, which is exactly to provide a safe environment both for you and your visitors, as well as for the staff working in this Embassy.

The next letter added:

You have shown once again an inacceptable behavior, by playing radio at a deliberated loud volume, during a meeting with one of your visitors today… Equally unacceptable is your daring statement that I am spying on you.

Meanwhile, over the months that the new Ecuadorian government began trying to get rid of Assange, the mainstream media filled with claims that Assange was a bad houseguest. This seems to have begun with the International Business Times claiming a “source who had visited Assange at the embassy” said “it seems he doesn’t wash properly”. This was later repeated as an official claim, for example by Ecuador’s UK Ambassador:

When Assange wanted to be unpleasant he put excrement on the walls and underwear with excrement in the lavatory. We had to remind him to flush the toilet and clean the dishes. He had to be reminded of normal standards of behaviour all the time. He would always leave the cooker on.

I find it difficult to imagine Assange smearing faeces on a wall. Until we are shown the surveillance footage of it, I can only assume this accusation is, well, a smear. The Daily Mail has published photos of Assange’s dirty dishes, but in my opinion they are underwhelming:

(Source)

Fidel Narvaez, an Ecuadorian ex-diplomat who made friends with Assange in the embassy, disputes the narrative:

Julian had a respectful relationship with staff, diplomats and administrative staff. I don’t recall a single incident when he disrespected someone until I left in July 2018. He was 100% respectful. Clean and tidy? What is clean and tidy? Did he put the dishes in the dishwasher? Probably not at weekends. Is that a crime?

Assange’s doctor similarly says:

But Ecuador’s claims have been widely repeated in mainstream media, usually in a very mocking manner which trivializes the serious issues at stake while providing a cover story for Ecuador’s censorship, surveillance, and eventual expulsion of Assange. For example, Vox writes:

Over the years, the WikiLeaks chief clearly grew too complacent with his surroundings. He would skateboard at night, play music extremely loudly, and even walk around in his underwear, according to NBC News. It’s reminiscent of Home Alone, except that it wasn’t his home, he wasn’t alone, and he was the (alleged) criminal.

But his behavior was also downright rude — and more than a little gross. He barely maintained his own personal hygiene, leading the smell from his room to infest the rest of the embassy. He refused to clean up or even feed his cat. And he almost came to blows with the mission’s security staff. As if that wasn’t enough, he acted out and on at least one occasion smeared his feces on the wall.

The embassy tried to rein him in. In March 2018, for example, Ecuador took away his internet in a kind of geopolitical timeout for grown-ups.

Funny how this qualifies as Real Journalism but Assange’s work does not.

The day before Assange was expelled from the embassy, his lawyers held a press conference revealing Ecuador’s extraordinary surveillance of Assange. They compared it to a “Truman Show-like situation” with video and audio recording every moment of Assange’s life in the embassy, to which the US government is known to have demanded access. They discovered this when someone in Spain offered to sell them gigabytes of files including: visitors’ logs, passports, photographs, video with audio of Assange’s medical exams and legal meetings, and even photocopied documents about Assange’s legal strategy to stop the Ecuadorian embassy censoring him – a breach of lawyer-client privilege

Why has Ecuador’s spying been so underreported in the establishment media? The mainstream journalists at that press conference reacted by repeating their usual anti-Assange talking points. For example, one asked “does Wikileaks regret having helped Donald Trump get elected by publishing material from Russia?” When Assange’s lawyer pointed out that the DNC emails were newsworthy, the journalist replied: “There are laws in this country which restrict information, and which we as professional journalists sometimes choose to comply with.” When asked what laws Wikileaks had broken, he replied: “I’m not going to get into that discussion here… I’m not going to be lectured by you on how I as a journalist do my job… We ask the questions, this is a press conference, you answer.”

On 29 March, Assange’s lawyers contacted the UN Special Rapporteur on Privacy (SRP). The SRP called the Ecuadorian embassy requesting to visit them on that same day. The embassy did not respond for several days, and the SRP suggested a meeting on 3 or 4 April. Ecuador insisted on delaying the meeting to 25 April. The UN decided to also send the Special Rapporteur on Torture, who specifically warned Ecuador not to expel Assange, saying he would face “a real risk of serious violations of his human rights, including his freedom of expression, his right to a fair trial, and the prohibition of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.

Days after delaying the privacy meeting, Moreno counter-accused Assange of spying on him, accusing WikiLeaks of being behind anonymous leaks about Moreno’s offshore accounts. In reality Assange personally, at least, cannot have had anything to do with it because he’s had no internet access. Moreno’s accusation is based mainly on the fact that Wikileaks tweeted about news of the leak.

This counter-accusation doubled as the final excuse to revoke Assange’s asylum, as Moreno claims it proves Assange is still “interfering in internal affairs of other states”. Moreno also repeated the accusation that Assange had “improper hygenic behaviour”, and insisted he’d received an assurance from the British govt that they wouldn’t extradite him to a country with the death penalty or torture.

Moreno’s predecessor Rafael Correa reacted on Twitter:

In summary, the new government of Ecuador has mistreated their political refugee and invented excuses to expel him.

In Part 6, I will examine the UK’s role in detaining Assange.


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