LONDON — For all practical purposes, whistleblower and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is now a prisoner in asylum at the Embassy of Ecuador in London, facing the torture of near-total isolation from the outside world and hanging by the thread of the Andean state’s dwindling hospitality.
On Thursday, the Australian – who, strangely enough, was given Ecuadorian citizenship last December – faced a new layer of precariousness atop his six-year refuge, when Ecuadorean President Lenin Moreno ordered that additional security assigned to the building be withdrawn.
COMUNICADO OFICIAL | Se retira de forma inmediata cualquier tipo de seguridad adicional de la embajada de Ecuador en Londres, Inglaterra. pic.twitter.com/2VI5Bljstj
— Comunicación Ecuador (@ComunicacionEc) May 18, 2018
According to Ecuador’s government, the London Embassy will now have the same level of security enjoyed by the other ambassadorial facilities the Andean nation maintains throughout the globe.
Since March, Ecuador has applied new pressure on Assange, beginning with the withdrawal of Assange’s internet connection. Authorities claim this move was in response to his “interference,” in the form of comments on Spain’s repression of Catalonian independence advocates and British accusations that Russia poisoned an ex-spy.
The move also coincided with a visit by two top-level officials from U.S. Southern Command to Quito for discussions to renew U.S.-Ecuador security ties. These had largely been frozen following the 2009 shuttering of the U.S. Air Force base in the coastal city of Manta, a major hub of U.S. espionage activity in the region.
Speaking to Sputnik, veteran journalist John Pilger commented:
It’s quite clear that this government has deferred to the United States … But Ecuador is a tiny country, and in the historical pattern has been pressured massively by the United States, which of course is working its way right through the governments that might have challenged U.S. interests in Latin America, from Venezuela to Argentina to Bolivia and now to Ecuador.”
Beyond Washington alone, Economist Intelligence Unit analyst Aristodimos Iliopoulos told Bloomberg that the move is also meant to curry favor with international financial institutions and extractive industries, which hope to exploit Ecuador’s resources. Iliopoulos noted:
The back story is that Ecuador wants to grow again by getting back into the good graces of international investors in oil and mining projects. So the wager might be that clamping down on Assange is seen as a sign of good will.
An attack on Assange’s mental health
Sealed off from the internet, phone calls, or outside visitors, the 46-year-old Assange is now faced with deteriorating health, an inability to visit the hospital to treat chronic health maladies, and conditions usually suffered by those held in solitary confinement.
Last August, Assange explained to The New Yorker that he suffers from bouts of anxiety and depression due to his isolation, often remaining awake for anywhere between 18 and 22 hours per day:
The walls of the Embassy are as familiar as the interior of my eyelids … I see them, but I do not see them.”
Rafael Correa — the former president of Ecuador, who extended asylum to Assange in 2012 while the U.S., Britain and Sweden sought his detention — has denounced the move as a blatant attempt to psychologically torment the whistleblower. Speaking to The Intercept, the popular former head of state noted:
Denial of visitors is a clear violation of his rights. Once we give asylum to someone, we are responsible for his safety, for ensuring humane living conditions. Without communications to the outside world and visits from anyone, the government is basically attacking Julian’s mental health.”
Seeking favor with the “Empire”
President Moreno has made no secret of his annoyance with the man he calls a “hacker,” calling Assange “a stone in his shoe” as Ecuador seeks to restructure itself as a trusted ally of the United States. Moreno’s overtures to Washington follow a 10-year policy toward the U.S. under the former administration of leftist economist Correa, who sought to undo the neoliberalism and meddling imposed on the country through a progressive movement dubbed the “Citizens’ Revolution.”
Since coming to power last May, Moreno has sought to undo his former leader’s legacy in a frenzied process that detractors point to as proof of his treacherous “Judas” nature. This has included jailing deposed Vice President Jorge Glas, a close Correa confidant, on corruption grounds; sacking the cabinet appointed following his election; holding a referendum for the purpose of preventing Correa from seeking reelection; and imposing austerity measures on the state, including the dissolution or merger of government ministries.
“One year ago in Ecuador, the Citizens’ Revolution won [the elections] thanks to 10 years of our extraordinary successes, but at the helm of the country there is now a traitor who applies the program of the Right and destroys all of our social achievements,” Correa told Italian newspaper l’AntiDiplomatico.
The “Judas Traidor” characterization was confirmed in the eyes of Correistas when Ecuador inked a new security cooperation agreement with the U.S. last month allowing a U.S. military team to renew “anti-drug and organized-crime” operations in the country following the mission’s expulsion in 2014 for allegedly conspiring against the Correa administration.
Much of the Latin American left, including Correa’s stalwarts, see the sacrifice of Assange as a betrayal of the anti-imperialist and anti-colonial legacy of the continent’s progressive movements. Supporters of Moreno, however, see Assange as an obstacle to developing Ecuador’s relations with potential partners in Europe and North America.
Commenting in the newspaper El Telegrafo, Father Pedro Pierre Riouffrait noted:
It is striking that a journalist would be accused of interference when his job is to inform. Rather, he should remain protected and should be assisted in regaining his freedom.
[Assange] is one of those figures of world stature who is formed to live, suffer, face accusations and slander for defending one of humanity’s greatest causes: informing us of what exactly happens in our world when people, nations and freedoms are destroyed.”
“Operation: Hotel” – espionage or simple state security?
While no longer facing rape allegations from Swedish prosecutors, Assange is still sought by British authorities for skipping bail and accepting the offer of asylum from former Ecuadorian President Correa.
Any attempt by Assange to leave the embassy would result in his arrest and detention in the U.K. for more than a year, followed by possible extradition to the United States. While he could contest prosecution by the U.S., his time in prison would be virtually assured.
The decision by Moreno to pull security from the facility comes after an “investigation” by The Guardian and right-wing research group Focus Ecuador was released this week. The report revealed that under former President Rafael Correa, Ecuador spent at least $5 million on a counter-espionage operation codenamed “Operation Hotel.” The goal was not only to protect Assange, according to the report, but provide surveillance through the placement of CCTV cameras throughout the building and round-the-clock security personnel assigned to the facility, who recorded Assange’s activities, disposition, and interactions with staff and lawyers, as well as the visitors who entered the Embassy. Records were allegedly sent directly to Correa.
The British newspaper speculates that the visitor records could possibly reveal who allegedly passed along the emails revealing the internal workings of the Democratic National Committee that were released by WikiLeaks in 2016 during the presidential elections.
According to logs viewed by The Guardian, visitors included RT London Bureau Chief Nikolai Bogachikin, British-Iranian journalist and RT anchor Afshin Rattansi, gadfly philosopher Slavoj Žižek, John Pilger, liberal documentarian Michael Moore, and dozens of others.
Beltway liberal pundits in the U.S. claim the DNC leak was engineered by the Russian government with the connivance of Assange, noting his immense loathing for Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton. The Guardian noted that “it is understood” that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has already interviewed a source close to the operation.
According to an anonymous source who spoke to The Guardian, Assange also breached the firewall of the embassy through his own personal internet connection via satellite, allowing him access to Ecuadorian diplomatic correspondence and the personal communications of staff.
WikiLeaks denies the allegation, calling it “an anonymous libel” stemming from the new “onslaught against Mr. Assange” by the governments of U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May and U.S. President Donald Trump.
Correa defends his moves
Rafael Correa currently lives with his wife in her home country, Belgium. The former president has been locked in a struggle with his one-time vice president and handpicked successor, Moreno, since shortly after leaving office.
Correa dismissed the accusations as a “sensationalistic” story about routine affairs that only seeks to whip up further animus against his erstwhile administration rather than make “a serious report to find out the truth.” Speaking to The Intercept, Correa said:
Of course we provided security to Assange in the embassy … It was our duty under the law to do so. We had the U.K. government threatening to break into the embassy. We spent what amounts to a small amount of money to provide security.”
For Correa, Moreno’s sacrifice of Assange is a transparent attempt to prostrate the former “banana republic” at the feet of Washington, opening the door to imperialist “control, intervention, espionage” and the all-round submission of the country.
As Iliopoulos told Bloomberg:
Investors loved that Moreno broke with Correa the way he did, and that gave him a huge honeymoon at the start … The good will is there, but it’s not a blank check.”
Citing the Assange case and realignment of Ecuador with the U.S., Correa has no doubt:
Moreno is betraying the Citizen’s Revolution in terms of our foreign policy.”
Top Photo | Wikileaks founder Julian Assange appears via teleconference at the Digital Culture Forum, organized by Argentina’s Ministry of Culture, October 15, 2015. (Photo: Romina Santarelli/Flickr)
Elliott Gabriel is a former staff writer for teleSUR English and a MintPress News contributor based in Quito, Ecuador. He has taken extensive part in advocacy and organizing in the pro-labor, migrant justice and police accountability movements of Southern California and the state’s Central Coast.