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Civil Society

Embassy life cramped, quiet for Julian Assange

A room, shower, and the Internet - such is daily life for Julian Assange. For two years, the controversial and enigmatic co-founder of the whistleblower site WikiLeaks has been living at the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

Life, they say, is full of ups and downs. Few people in recent history are as vividly aware of that aphorism as Julian Assange. In 2010, as revelations peaked on his co-founded Internet platform, WikiLeaks, the Australian became caught in an avalanche of media attention. He was praised and reviled, admired and threatened.

Now, four years later, the political activist finds himself in something of a crevasse, forgotten by those many who adored or deplored him.

On Thursday (19.06.2014), WikiLeaks said it would make a major announcement.

Since June 19, 2012, he has been living inside Ecuador's embassy in London, where he took refuge to avoid extradition to Sweden.

But a luxurious life it is not, said Kathrin Nord, co-author of a book about Assange.

"He has a room with a shower and an Internet connection. That's probably the difference between a prison. But he doesn't see actual sunshine, since he can't go out."

International stalemate

Swedish authorities are investigating the charismatic man with the distinctive silver-white hair and gentle face because of sexual assault and sexual harassment allegations brought against him by two women. The charges, which are still in effect, led to the rejection of Assange's application for Swedish residency as well as a work permit.

Swedish prosecutors have refused to travel to London to question Assange and have insisted that he must be extradited to Sweden. Those close to Assange have said they fear Swedish authorities would extradite him to the United States, where he could potentially face the death penalty for his role in WikiLeaks' disclosures.

Björn Schiffbauer in a professional outdoor photograph
Photo: Björn Schiffbauer

Björn Schiffbauer: The legal stalemate will have to be solved diplomatically

Ecuador granted Assange "diplomatic asylum," providing him residence at the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

The problem? Internationally, only Ecuador and a few other Latin American countries recognize diplomatic asylum as a "regional customary law."

The result is an "international legal stalemate," said international legal expert Björn Schiffbauer of the University of Cologne. "Diplomatic asylum as such, in the UK, is contrary to international law, which means Ecuador isn't even allowed to grant it."

On the other hand, he added, the embassy grounds are sheltered by the principle of "inviolability of the mission" and are therefore protected from entry by the country in which it resides.

Hero or traitor?

As for Julian the man, judgments of him rolled in quickly as revelations mounted on his WikiLeaks site. For some, Assange, who was nearly at the time, was a hero; for others he was a traitor.

Kathrin Nord in a professional photograph against a gray backdrop.
Photo: Sebastian Gabriel

Nord: Assange is a 'radical person'

Nord said she finds such labels insufficient: "It would be presumptuous to reduce him to a positive or negative. He's a person who dared to do something, and is quite multi-faceted. But he did something radical - and he is a radical person. That will always stick to him."

Nord, a political scientist and lecturer, co-wrote "Julian Assange: The man who changed the world" with journalist Carsten Görig.

As for whether that title still holds, Nord doesn't need long to answer: "Surely, he didn't change the world. He revealed many secrets and inspired people like Edward Snowden."

Snowden, she added, specifically referenced the Manning leaks, which included the so-called "war logs" of Iraq and Afghanistan incident reports as well as numerous classified cables from the US State Department.

What remains?

Assange has a weekly show on Russia's public broadcaster, Russia Today, and occasionally conducts Internet conferences.

Sarah Harrison of WikiLeaks giving a public presentation
Photo: Angelika Warmuth/dpa

Sarah Harrison, Assange's closest adviser, during a video conference with Assange in Hamburg in 2013

Prior to the embassy isolation, said Nord, Assange spent months working from within cramped quarters. Whether he'll persevere inside Ecuador's embassy in London or will seek asylum in another country remains pure speculation. "Assange," Nord said, "is not a person you can predict."

And though his WikiLeaks platform has taken second stage to the NSA revelations published with information provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, Nord views that as something of a logical progression.

"The demands for more transparency and the protection of civil rights on the Internet remain, and will be taken over by others," she said. "WikiLeaks initiated a lot of things. But the idea behind it is too big to be reduced to one person."

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