When Donald Trump was elected president on 8 November 2016, Julian Assange had already been confined to the Ecuadorean embassy in central London for four years, surrounded by around 50 police officers and an unknown number of intelligence officers. That summer, the 45-year-old Australian had circumvented the surveillance and published thousands of emails revealing how the Democratic party leadership had manipulated the presidential primaries to favour Hillary Clinton over her leftwing challenger Bernie Sanders. Assange was instantly at the centre of global geopolitics: the world’s best-known political refugee, guilty of publishing verified information, had demonstrated he would not buckle.
In February 2016 a UN expert panel had criticised the UK and Sweden (which had issued a European arrest warrant), finding Assange to have been ‘arbitrarily detained’ and demanding he be freed. However, leaked emails from Clinton’s campaign director, John Podesta, caused a media shockwave that drowned out all reasonable opinion on WikiLeaks including that of Barack Obama, who stressed the need to ‘find the right balance of accountability and openness and transparency’.
In 2017 WikiLeaks published the biggest ever leak of CIA documents, revealing the agency’s hacking and surveillance techniques and rendering them useless. Baltasar Garzón, head of Assange’s defence team, favoured caution: Swedish prosecutors had just dropped their investigation into his client, who had been accused of rape. Garzón, who had in the past issued an arrest warrant for General Pinochet and confronted Al-Qaida and George W Bush, knew this was a greater challenge. Ecuador, with its shaky finances (its annual revenue is less than one-seventh of the US’s military budget), could no longer resist pressure from Washington, and Lenín Moreno, the next president, refused to meet Assange. A furious Trump administration realised it was dealing with a radical, not an ally it could tame. (…)
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