UPDATE: THE Ecuadorian government last night announced it would grant the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange political asylum.
Ecuador foreign minister Ricardo Patino said the country had decided to grant political asylum to Mr Assange following a request sent to president Rafael Correa.
“We believe that his fears are legitimate and there are threats that he could face political persecution,” Mr Patino told reporters in Quito.
“The Ecuador government, loyal to its tradition to protect those who seek refuge with us at our diplomatic missions, has decided to grant diplomatic asylum to Mr Assange.
“This is a sovereign decision protected by international law. It makes no sense to surmise that this implies a breaking of relations (with Britain).”
Shortly after the announcement, Mr Assange addressed staff at the embassy in London.
“It is a significant victory for myself, and my people,” he said.
“Things will probably get more stressful now.”
For a comprehensive round up of the Assange story, read Monica Attard…
He’s never out of the news cycle for long, our Julian.
To some, a noble hacker activist, to others a cyber terrorist guilty of espionage who should be hanged or more generously, jailed, the Wikileaks founder’s troubles seem to have worsened in recent days – and all by his own hand.
But Julian Assange obviously knows how to fight the good fight and to date, it’s usually been very public and with a significant amount of sympathy on his side.
His latest attempt to escape what he says is the United States’ desire to try him for espionage over his infamous leaking of some 250,000 confidential US diplomatic cables has him holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, seeking political asylum.
British police are perched outside waiting to arrest him for breaching the conditions of the bail granted him by the UK Supreme Court whilst he waits to be extradited to Sweden to face questions over alleged sexual assault.
Who in their right mind would have advised him to take such a step?
It’s a complex story – and getting more complex by the minute. So here’s a cheat sheet on the life and troubled times of Julian Paul Assange – political activist, publisher, journalist and seemingly spurned Australian.
- Having spent most of his childhood on the move with his mother Christine, the family settled in Melbourne in the 1980s. Christine rented a house across the road from an electronics shop where Julian’s interest in computers was ignited. He attended a school for gifted children, discovered hacking and later studied mathematics and physics at the University of Melbourne, though he didn’t graduate.
- When he was 18, Assange married and fathered a baby boy, Daniel. But as police closed in on his hacking activities, his wife fled with their son. Depressed, Assange was hospitalised after which he spent time living on the streets.
- Assange found refuge from life’s turmoil in computer-land. He told the New Yorker that he enjoyed computers: “It is like chess. Chess is very austere in that you don’t have many rules, there is no randomness and the problem is very hard.”
- In the hacking underground of Melbourne, Assange assumed the pseudonym Mendax and delved into computer encryption and security.
- Though his involvement has never been proven, it’s believed Mendax and his cohorts, in 1989, pulled off the extraordinary feat of hacking into NASA’s website using a computer worm. The message they left for startled NASA employees when they turned on their computers was: “You have been officially WANKed”. WANK stood for Worms Against Nuclear Killers.
- Sounds like a high point in the career of a hacker? Nope. Better was to come. Assange hacked into the master terminal of Nortel, manufacturer of telecommunications equipment and he wormed his way into the Pentagon as well as Lockeed Martin’s Technical Aircraft Systems plant. And all from Melbourne.
- With the Australian Federal Police on his trail, Assange was charged with 24 counts of hacking. He pleaded guilty, was fined and warned that next time, he’d go to jail.
- Unemployed and after a battle, with sole custody of Daniel, Assange found himself living on a single parent pension. He set about creating a career writing software programs committed to the noble, but let’s face it, fanciful idea of free information and overthrowing injustice wherever he found it. Thus Wikileaks was born.
- Wikileaks is a site that encourages whistle-blowers to leak information for publication. It has published some 1 million documents, which have embarrassed governments, diplomats and businesses. Its computers have military level, so in the event they are seized, information stored is meaningless.
- Sweden, with its strong laws on protecting journalists, became his safe haven.
- It was the July 2007 video titled “Collateral Murder” showing US army helicopter pilots firing at a van in a Bagdad suburb, carrying two employees of the Reuters newsagency and 10 others including children, which alerted the US to the problems Wikileaks could present.
- The video, released in April 2010, also heightened interest from Iceland. Having already published leaked secret documents naming and shaming the Icelandic banks, which had lent to their cronies, Iceland beckoned as a new haven.
- Wikileaks’ escapades in the meantime had earned it a venerable place on the hacker’s speakers and conference circuit, further angering the US, which wanted to “speak” with Assange. Street wise and wily, he was never where they thought he would be.
- In June 2010, US intelligence analyst Bradley Manning was arrested in Iraq. Manning was charged with suspicion of having passed on to Wikileaks the Apache video and 250,000 US diplomatic cables which Wikileaks subsequently published, with several major newspapers, between July and November 2010. Manning’s trial begins in September this year and he faces life imprisonment if convicted.
- In August 2010, after Manning’s arrest, the Swedish Police began investigating allegations concerning sexual encounters, described by Assange as consensual, with two women. After a European Arrest Warrant was issued for his extradition to Sweden, Assange, then in the UK, voluntarily attended police questioning and was arrested. He was jailed but released after 10 days on bail, fitted with an electronic tag and ordered to report daily to the police. Assange and his supporters believe the sexual assault investigation is a ruse to bring him to Sweden from where the US will extradite him to face espionage charges. Why not from the UK is still anyone’s guess.
- The extradition warrant was upheld in February 2011 and Assange appealed to the High Court. This appeal was dismissed but he was later granted permission to appeal to the Supreme Court on a technicality, which was also dismissed.
- With two weeks to open a challenge to this finding in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, Assange breached his bail conditions and sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. He claims he is not prepared to go to Sweden because it has pronounced he would be arrested and kept in custody throughout the investigation, Australia has abandoned him and there is evidence the US will try to extradite him.
- But why Ecuador? For starters, it will not hear extradition claims on crimes against a state, particularly if they carry the death penalty. And it seems, Assange struck up a cosy relationship with the Ecuadorian President, Rafael Correa during an interview he conducted with him for Russia Today, a Kremlin mouthpiece that has given the Wikileaks founder another public voice. “Cheer up! Cheer up! Welcome to the club of the persecuted!” Mr Correa, himself under international scrutiny, told Assange.
- Assange has spoken out saying he is convinced the US is preparing to extradite him from Sweden, despite the fact that Sweden – like Ecuador – does not permit political extradition and that he could as easily be extradited to the US from the UK. He told the ABC : “We have received subpoenas – the subpoenas mention my name. In the past month, two people have been detained at the US airport by US officials, interrogated by the FBI. They ask questions about me and my organization, ask [them] to become informers. This is a hot, ongoing, active investigation – and as of two weeks ago.”
- Ecuador is considering Assange’s case. Critical will be whether it believes Assange could face the death penalty if he is extradited, forced to face espionage charges and convicted.
- London Metropolitan police and Scotland Yard are camped outside the embassy, ready to arrest Assange whether he is granted asylum or not. How he thought the Ecuadorians might spirit him out of the embassy is obviously an issue the silver-haired Assange didn’t turn his mind to. The Ecuadorians may believe the task is a hopeless one that will land them in the UK’s bad books, with diplomatic expulsions an obvious response.
- So does Assange have reason to fear the US? Put all the pieces together – you’d have to surmise that Assange has a lot to fear. I wouldn’t feel assured by the utterances of the US executive that it has no interest in him. The Justice Department works independently and Assange’s barrackers say a former Justice Department officials asserts there is a sealed indictment on Assange. And who knows whether being a journalist (or claiming he is a journalist) will be enough to protect Assange from prosecution.
And what does this all mean for Australia?
Though Australia says it has no information indicating the US is interested in Assange, it looks like it has abandoned him and is acquiescing to US sensitivities.
And after the David Hicks debacle, that’s not a good look not too far off an election.
*Monica Attard OAM, is a five-time Walkley award-winning Australian journalist – including the Gold Walkley Award for Excellence in Journalism 1991. She was the host of the ABC’s PM, the World Today and Media Watch.She spent 28 years at the ABC, leaving to start up The Global Mail where she was, until recently, the Managing Editor. In 1997, Monica published a book entitled Russia: Which Way Paradise? documenting her time there as a foreign correspondent.