On July 19, 2012, a Tuesday, Julian Assange entered the situation that he would later describe as "detention without charge." This Thursday will mark five years since the WikiLeaks founder fled to the Ecuadorean Embassy in London and asked for political asylum. Just prior to that, his appeal against extradition to Sweden had been denied by the UK Supreme Court.
Sweden had issued a warrant for the Australian's arrest in November 2010. The charge: Assange was accused of having raped a woman in Sweden and of having sexually harassed others. He has denied the charges to this day, criticizing them as politically motivated. He feared that once he arrived in Sweden, he would be extradited to the United States.
Spying among friends
When WikiLeaks published the video "Collateral Murder" in April 2010, Washington declared Assange public enemy number one. The video shows a US helicopter attack that killed 11 people in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, including two journalists.
Further revelations would follow. The internet platform eventually went on to publish some 250,000 classified documents from US embassies around the world, clearly showing, for instance, that the US intelligence agency NSA had spied on German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Although no official charges have been filed against Assange by the USA, the case of Chelsea Manning, who was instrumental in providing the platform with a large number of classified documents, shows that the country does not fool around when it comes to the issue of whistleblowers. Manning was sentenced to 35 years in jail. He was later pardoned by President Barack Obama, after having served seven years in a US military prison.
Food from the pub
It thus seems that Assange had good reason to apply for political asylum at the Ecuadorean Embassy. Since then, he has been living, together with his cat, in a remodeled 20-square-meter (215-square-foot) office. Since the embassy has no yard, media sources say that the most important piece of equipment in the space is a daylight lamp. The 45-year-old maintains contact with the outside world via computer and telephone. A shower was also fitted into the office space, and it is said that his meals are delivered by a nearby pub.
Assange faces the threat of arrest should he ever decide to leave the embassy grounds. This is despite the fact that Sweden's judiciary dropped all charges against him in May of this year. Shortly after Sweden made the announcement, British authorities voiced their intent to arrest him should he leave Ecuadorean territory. The reason: Assange violated the terms of his bail in 2012.
'The war is just commencing'
So when it was announced that Sweden had dropped charges against him, Assange celebrated from a safe distance. He tweeted that the decision was an important victory, "for me and for the UN human rights system." At the same time, he decried having spent "almost five years here in the embassy, without sunlight." And speaking from an embassy balcony, he told supporters that "the proper war is just commencing."
But he is conducting that war behind the drapes of his self-imposed exile. And those close to him say that the situation is having adverse effects on his health. In February 2016 his mother told the Australian radio station ABC that he suffered from heart problems, chronic pneumonia and serious pain in his shoulder.
Unreasonably harsh punishment?
Legal experts say the British authorities' desire to arrest Assange for breaching his bail agreement is dubious. Nikolaos Gazeas, an expert for international criminal law, told DW that such infractions were generally at the bottom end of the criminal liability scale. He went on to say that a warrant for Assange's arrest was unreasonable in light of the extremity of his situation.
Is the truth of the matter rather that Assange is to be arrested so that he can be extradited to the USA? Several US media outlets have reported that the US Attorney General's Office is already working on a document that will charge him and other WikiLeaks founders with conspiracy, theft of government documents and breaking espionage laws. To date, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) has not confirmed the stories, but it has not denied them either. US Attorney General Jeff Sessions himself declared that Assange's arrest and the fight against the leaking of state secrets would be a "priority" for the US government.
A hero gone astray
So it seems things do not look good for Assange. And his reputation as a fighter for freedom of opinion has also been tarnished over the last couple of years. For instance, WikiLeaks has been accused of working in concert with Russia. The organization sparked a storm of protest last July when it published emails documenting leading representatives within the Democratic Party as favoring US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at the expense of her more left-leaning challenger for the party's nomination, Senator Bernie Sanders.
Assange is also suspected of having wanted to get involved in the recent French presidential election. In February, Assange told the Russian newspaper Izvestia that he wanted to release compromising information on then candidate, and now president, Emmanuel Macron. The revelations never came to light, but that did not stop Russian media outlets such as Sputnik and Russia Today (RT), both of which have close ties to the Kremlin, from spreading Assange's announcement as if the scandal were already there.
Even support from Ecuador seems to be waning at this point. Just recently, newly elected Ecuadorean President Lenin Moreno called Assange a hacker. He went on to say that hacking was something that he and his country rejected. During the election campaign, Moreno warned Assange against meddling in South American politics. Nevertheless, the president says that he will honor Assange's political asylum, stressing the fact that Ecuador will continue to give the Australian refuge in his country's London embassy.Jeannette Cwienk (js)