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Julian Assange's Seven Strange Years in Self-Imposed Isolation

The spectacle of Julian Assange, bearded and haggard, resisting arrest while London police officers dragged him through the street, punctuated the end of seven confounding years inside the Ecuadorean Embassy, where he lived with his cat in a small corner room as the world's most famous self-proclaimed political refugee.

Mr. Assange, 47, has long fashioned himself as a crusader for revealing secrets. The internet group he founded, WikiLeaks, published caches of classified American government communications, as well as emails hacked by Russian intelligence clearly intended to damage the presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton.

Though arrested Thursday morning by the British for skipping bail, Mr. Assange was immediately charged in the United States for conspiracy to hack a government computer.

To supporters, Mr. Assange was a martyr and champion of free speech. To the United States government, he was a pariah and a lackey of the Kremlin. But it was the hardened opinion of Ecuador's government that perhaps mattered most.

He had become an unwanted houseguest.

At the tiny red-brick embassy, he continued to run his internet group, conducted news conferences before hundreds of fawning admirers from a balcony, rode his skateboard in the halls, and played host to a parade of visitors, including Lady Gaga and Pamela Anderson, a rumored lover who brought vegan sandwiches.

On Thursday, Ms. Anderson sent out a batch of Twitter messages attacking the arrest as a "vile injustice" and called Britain and the United States "devils and liars and thieves."

In interviews with The New York Times in 2016, as part of a long look at his ties to Russia, Mr. Assange denied any link to Russian intelligence, in particular regarding the leaked Democratic emails. Mrs. Clinton and the Democrats were "whipping up a neo-McCarthyist hysteria about Russia," he said. There is "no concrete evidence" that what WikiLeaks publishes comes from intelligence agencies, he said, even as he indicated that he would happily accept such material.

Small as they were, Mr. Assange's living quarters at the embassy, close to the lavish self-indulgence of Harrods, the famous department store, did not cramp his desire to remain in the limelight.

Mr. Assange had an office equipped with a bed, sunlamp, phone, computer, kitchenette, shower, treadmill and bookshelves. Three years ago, one person familiar with the setup called it "a gas station with two attendants."

Vaughan Smith, who had been a longtime supporter of Mr. Assange and helped put up his bail money, said that "Julian's a big bloke, with big bones, and he fills the room physically and intellectually."

"It's a tiny embassy with a tiny balcony," he added, "small, hot and with not great air flow, and it must be jolly difficult for everyone there."

But from there, Mr. Assange for years held court for admirers and famous curiosity seekers, among them the soccer star Eric Cantona, and Nigel Farage, the pro-Brexit radio host and former head of U.K. Independence Party.

Still, Mr. Assange's isolation was wearing on him, a friend said on Thursday, especially the long, lonely weekends in an essentially empty embassy he could not leave.

Even his friends have described him as difficult, a narcissist with an outsized view of his importance and a disinterest in mundane matters like personal hygiene.

He was becoming deeply depressed and wondered about simply walking out, the friend said, speaking on condition of anonymity. And relations with his hosts were becoming deeply strained, even adversarial.

A copy of a 2014 letter from Juan Falconí Puig, then Ecuador's ambassador to Britain, to the Foreign Ministry, seen by The New York Times, outlined the growing resentment between the diplomats and Mr. Assange over his behavior at the embassy.

Among Mr. Falconí's top concerns was Mr. Assange's penchant for riding a skateboard and playing soccer with visitors. His skateboarding, Mr. Falconí said, had "damaged floors, walls and doors."

The ambassador said the soccer games had destroyed embassy equipment. When an embassy security agent stopped the game and took away the ball, Mr. Assange "began to shake, insult and push the agent," reclaimed the ball and then "launched the ball at his body."

The letter said Mr. Assange had invited a television reporter to interview them at the embassy and had showed the visitor off-limits parts of the building.

At one point, according to the letter, Mr. Assange used the alarm setting on a megaphone "to attract the police" to record them for the show.

"This last action, in the middle of the night, was a clear attempt to annoy the police," Mr. Falconí wrote.

Another time, the letter said, Mr. Assange "violently hit the embassy control room door" demanding in a "threatening manner" that one of the guards come out to speak to him.

The guards came out, only to be harassed by Mr. Assange, who yelled and shoved them, Mr. Falconí wrote.

Mr. Assange's long presence in the embassy, long after the Ecuadorean president who granted him political asylum had been replaced, finally became too much for the Ecuadorean government. President Lenin Moreno, elected in 2017, explained the decision on Twitter and in a video.

"In a sovereign decision Ecuador withdrew the asylum status to Julian Assange after his repeated violations to international conventions and daily-life protocols," he said.

He accused Mr. Assange of having installed forbidden "electronic and distortion equipment," accessing the embassy's security files without permission, blocking the embassy's security cameras and mistreating its personnel, including guards.

In March of last year, the Ecuadorean government severed his internet access, saying that he had violated an agreement to stop commenting on, or trying to influence, the politics of other countries.

The government also limited his visitors and required him to clean his bathroom and look after his cat. Mr. Assange then sued the Ecuadorean government in October, claiming that it was violating his rights.

He hired the Spanish human rights jurist, Baltasar Garzón, who filed suit against the Ecuadorean government in its own courts, saying Mr. Assange's rights were violated. He also filed a second complaint with the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, an international body that mediates rights issues.

Both cases were rejected by officials, and further angered Mr. Moreno's government.

A recent leak of papers last month related to Mr. Moreno, which the government blamed on WikiLeaks, further angered officials before Mr. Assange's eviction. The vast trove of emails, text messages and photos were known in Ecuador as the INA papers, named after a company linked to the president's brother.

The leaked papers, first published by an independent Ecuadorean news site, described an extravagant life of the president and his family that included lavish dinners, expensive watches and trips around the world.

They included text messages between the president's wife telling friends about family trips to Switzerland and New York and private pictures of Mr. Moreno, including one of him in a hotel room bed with a lobster meal. WikiLeaks denied involvement in the leaks, though it promoted the story on its Twitter site.

Days later, Mr. Moreno said that Mr. Assange had "repeatedly violated" the terms of his asylum and that Mr. Assange could not "hack private accounts or phones."

"Finally," Mr. Moreno said in his statement announcing the withdrawal of asylum, "two days ago, WikiLeaks, Mr. Assange's allied organization, threatened the government of Ecuador. My government has nothing to fear and does not act under threats."

Mr. Moreno appeared to be referring to an effort by WikiLeaks to reveal the scale of surveillance of Mr. Assange within the embassy.

The editor in chief of WikiLeaks, Kristinn Hrafnsson, charged in a news conference this week that there had been "extensive spying" on Mr. Assange, and that Ecuador was part of a plot to extradite him to the United States.

"What we have established is security has monitored his every move and every meeting with visitors," Mr. Hrafnsson said. "We also know there was a request to hand over visit logs and video recordings from within the embassy."

"We believe this has been handed over to the Trump administration," Mr. Hrafnsson added.

Mr. Hrafnsson also charged that the spying was part of a 3 million-euro extortion plot against Mr. Assange involving sex tapes.

The British police arrested Mr. Assange on Thursday on charges that he had jumped bail after his initial arrest in 2010 on a Swedish warrant.

The Swedes had wanted to question Mr. Assange on allegations of sexual misconduct and rape; in June 2012, Mr. Assange, even then fearing extradition to the United States, left his backers to lose their bail money while he successfully sought political asylum in the Ecuadorean Embassy.

Only in May 2017, after many attempts to secure Mr. Assange and finally interview him on those charges, did Sweden give up and drop its arrest warrant.

Mr. Assange also gradually offended some of his early supporters, like Edward Snowden and the heiress Jemima Goldsmith Khan. He suffered from vitamin D deficiency, dental problems and depression. For some, he became a sort of joke, and many mocked his fear of extradition.

But there were times when thousands of supporters cheered Mr. Assange's work and what many considered his martyrdom in the name of individual rights and internet freedom. Hundreds would sometimes gather outside the embassy, to hear Mr. Assange address them from that tiny balcony.

British police officers arrived Thursday about 9:15 a.m. at the embassy, where the ambassador offered to serve Mr. Assange documentation revoking his asylum. He didn't go easily.

He resisted arrest and had to be restrained by officers, who struggled to handcuff him and received assistance from officers outside the embassy.

"This is unlawful, I'm not leaving," he told them, according to the account given at the Westminster Magistrates Court, where Mr. Assange later appeared, his silver hair tied in a bun, his tight lips visible behind a long, white beard, and looking composed in a navy suit.

Outside the court, a flock of cameras were pointing toward the guarded entrance, and a group of protesters chanted feebly "Free, free, free Assange."

After Mr. Assange took his seat in court, a supporter wearing a scruffy fluorescent jacket gave him an enthusiastic thumbs-up from the public gallery.

Mr. Assange turned his head clinically toward the gallery, raised his arm, and returned the gesture.

While awaiting the lawyers to enter, Mr. Assange read from a book, which he raised for the media to see: "History of the National Security State," by Gore Vidal.

[Source: By Steven Erlanger and Nicholas Casey, The New York Times, 11Apr19]

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