While cocking a snook at the United States to help him win next year’s presidential election, President Rafael Correa of Ecuador has shown callous indifference to the welfare of his diplomats in London whom he has effectively drafted into the service of a very tricky and unpredictable master in the person of Julian Assange. The founder of WikiLeaks thinks that his sojourn in the Ecuadorian embassy in Knightsbridge will last only six months to a year, because he expects Sweden to have dropped its sex allegations against him by then; but even that may be more than enough time to reduce his hosts to a state of quivering rage and resentment. For the embassy is small, it has no bedrooms and no garden, and Assange is by all accounts not only strange in his habits but also extremely self-confident and bossy.
The Guardian recently published a series of interviews under the headline ‘Who is Julian Assange? By the people who know him best’, and it was notable that even his greatest fans found him somewhat odd and bristly. Vaughan Smith, the former army officer and journalist who championed his cause and housed him for more than a year in his Norfolk country house while he was on bail, said ‘it wasn’t always easy’ having him there, mainly because of his constant stream of visitors, and that ‘he usually falls out’ with any other strong character.
Jérémie Zimmermann, a fellow campaigner for freedom of information, paid tribute to his cleverness, his courage and his wit, all qualities widely mentioned by others; but he also said he had ‘certain characteristics you find only in very technical people and some people with Asperger’s syndrome’ and that ‘unless the people around him force him into the shower, he might not change his clothes for days’ (which, together with the stream of visitors, does not bode well for Ecuadorian embassy staff). But then Mark Stephens, his former lawyer, said he was ‘a person about whom myths grow easily and perhaps over readily: there are a lot of apocryphal stories — stories like he doesn’t flush the toilet or doesn’t wash — all of which don’t ring true to anyone who has been in close proximity’.
Even so, we learned from Ian Katz, the deputy editor of the Guardian, which collaborated with Assange in the publication of a mountain of leaked American military and diplomatic documents, that ‘Julian never rose before lunchtime’ and that his conversation included ‘some eye-wateringly unsavoury references to sex’; and from a former WikiLeaks colleague, James Ball, that his behaviour could be ‘erratic’, that he was ‘not particularly considerate of those around him’, and that ‘he is quite happy to lie in the interest of what he sees as the greater good’. So this is the fellow that President Correa has entrusted to the care of his representatives in London, and I cannot believe they will much enjoy the experience.
Everything about Assange and the case surrounding him is so weird that it fascinates everybody, and it was even the main subject of conversation during my summer holiday in Tuscany. Sweden’s insistence on his presence in the country to be questioned about allegations for which he hasn’t even been charged seemed as puzzling as Assange’s belief that he would be extradited from Sweden to the United States when the Americans haven’t charged him with anything either.
And the idea that he might be sentenced to death in the US for upholding the principles on press freedom enshrined in the First Amendment to the American Constitution seems to me to belong to the world of fantasy. And I can’t even understand why Assange is thought to have done anything worse than the New York Times did, since like that revered newspaper WikiLeaks was only the publisher of these classified documents, not their leaker.
Meanwhile, the diplomatic stand-off between Ecuador and Britain shows no sign of ending, and I don’t know why Assange believes that stubborn old Sweden is going to be the first to crack. One thing seems certain: Assange himself won’t compromise, for he is more stubborn than anyone. He reminds me most strongly of the late Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, Roman Catholic Primate of Hungary and an implacable anti-communist, sentenced to life for treason in 1949, who when released from prison during the Hungarian uprising of 1956 took refuge during the Soviet invasion in the American embassy in Budapest and stayed there for 15 years, resisting every deal to secure his release until the Pope had to order him into exile in 1971 (all of which I remember well because I was then a correspondent in Rome). By then the Americans were totally sick of him, but they had tried not to show it. The best hope for ending the Assange impasse is that the Ecuadorian diplomats have less self-control and one day pour screaming into the street.
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