While Americans celebrated the adoption of the Declaration of Independence over the weekend, there were people around the globe, including in the United States, celebrating the birth of a man who is fighting for his freedom and the freedom of information: Julian Assange, who turned 43 years old on July 3.
Widely known for his roles as co-founder and editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, Assange sought to create an organization that aligns with his belief that a transparent government reduces corruption and in turn creates a stronger democracy, which explains why WikiLeaks has released more classified intelligence documents than all other media organizations around the world combined.
Assange likely had an underwhelming birthday weekend, as the Australian journalist remains a refugee at the Embassy of Ecuador in London, a place he has been unable to leave since June 19, 2012. If Assange were to leave the embassy, he would run into the British police officers stationed outside the embassy 24 hours a day, seven days a week, armed with handcuffs, assault rifles and orders to deport Assange to Sweden. (This police presence has cost U.K. taxpayers about $10 million so far.)
WikiLeaks, a project of the Sunshine Press, is run by an independent group of people who advocate for the freedom of the press and the need for transparency. It began its work in Sweden because the country had the strongest laws when it came to protecting a person’s anonymity.
Sweden may want to question Assange regarding allegations of sexual assault, but the WikiLeaks editor and many human rights and freedom-of-information advocates are concerned that if Assange is extradited to Sweden, he will then likely be sent to the U.S., where he is wanted for disclosing confidential government information such as diplomatic cables and documents related to the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For these disclosures, it is believed he would likely be sentenced to death.
The Ecuadorean government maintains that the reasons why Ecuador granted asylum to Assange are still relevant, and the country is prepared to host the controversial journalist for five more years if need be. Ecuador’s decision to support Assange has been applauded by many, as WikiLeaks, which launched in 2007, has been credited with informing the world about “U.S., British and NATO war crimes and propaganda in Iraq, the Middle East, [and] Afghanistan…”
Eugene Craig, who nominated Assange for the nonprofit organization Global Exchange’s “People’s Choice Award,” says the journalist has also helped “expose Wall Street/corporate malfeasance and criminal acts; deceitful, corrupt politicians; and the lying, corporate-controlled mass media,” and “put uncomfortable truths above comfortable conformity and self-interest.”
It is not clear why Swedish officials wouldn’t just ask to question Assange inside the Ecuadorian embassy. Assange and Ecuadorian officials have agreed to let Swedish officials inside the embassy, which is why Jennifer Robinson, legal adviser to Assange, says she filed an appeal last week before the Swedish courts challenging the arrest warrant.
Robinson argued that since it’s been about four years since these allegations were made and no one has questioned Assange, the case needs to proceed.
She explained that Assange is not hiding from the Swedish authorities at the embassy, but that his refugee status is related more to concerns about what would happen if Assange was turned over to U.S. officials. She continued, saying Assange has spoken to Swedish police multiple times about these allegations, but the Swedish police want to question him one more time before they determine whether he should be charged with a crime.
The U.S. has refused to not pursue espionage charges against Assange, even though WikiLeaks has been victorious in every legal challenge made against the organization, including challenges brought by powerful organizations and agencies such as the U.S. Pentagon, the Chinese Public Security Bureau, the Former president of Kenya, the premier of Bermuda, the Church of Scientology, the Catholic and Mormon Churches, the largest Swiss private bank and unnamed Russian companies.
Given how some whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning have been treated by U.S. officials, many people and organizations around the world are concerned about how Assange would be treated if released. In response to this, 59 international human rights groups, press freedom advocates and civil society organizations submitted a report to the United Nations last month, asking for the “political prisoner” to be left alone.
The organizations argued that Assange was only accused of sexual assault because he published leaked government materials, which Assange also alleges in his affidavit, and said democratic nations like Sweden and the U.S. should grant Assange his right to due process and legal protections.
While government officials around the world may not be the most staunch supporters of WikiLeaks and Assange, it appears the public has a growing appreciation for Assange’s contributions to truth reporting, as WikiLeaks, which is funded by donations, receives a little less than $1,300 per day, according to reports from 2013.
To occupy his time in the embassy, Assange has written a book,released intelligence records from the 1970s and about 2.4 million emails related to Syria, weighed in on other whistleblower cases, including Chelsea Manning’s case and the status of National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.
In addition, Assange ran for the Senate in Australia under the WikiLeaks Party. He has also hosted some notable visitors including pop singer Lady Gaga and film director Oliver Stone, and grants interviews to some media organizations for a fee, reportedly so he can continue to fund WikiLeaks.
Correction: An earlier version of this article briefly stated that Assange worked on a Wikileaks movie called “The Fifth Estate”. Assange did not work on this movie, in fact he contested it, according to Wikileaks.