WAS there a time when Julian Assange was viewed as a hero: a great crusader, risking his future – his very life – in the name of freedom and truth?
The WikiLeaks founder has been a figure of ridicule so long – a prissy bundle of self-love, holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy – it’s weird to recall he was once regarded with awe by journalists who craved a bit of excitement in their own lives.
They weren’t the only ones to be suckered. Even after the sexual assault allegations – when he was hiding out in Ellingham Hall in Norfolk, courtesy of maverick owner Vaughan Smith – he had a coterie of celebrity bandwagon-jumpers at his beck and call. That was before he skipped bail, of course, leaving them almost £100,000 out of pocket; before the scale of his narcissism became apparent; before we all realised he was less Jason Bourne and more David Icke, less the Messiah and more a naughty boy.
Though the wool may have been pulled from our eyes, his own vision was still distorted, so he continued to pose theatrically for photographs, talk his self-aggrandising talk and believe that – having spuriously claimed diplomatic immunity to evade arrest and extradition to Sweden – he was a victim of state oppression rather than a fugitive from justice.
Giving rein to his raging ego, he saw himself in the same light as Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese political leader who spent 15 years under house arrest, or those detained without charge at Guantanamo Bay. Admittedly, Assange hasn’t been charged either, but that’s because police can’t get access to him. The subject of a European Arrest Warrant, he also tried to call the shots in the judicial process, offering to be questioned by video link and inviting Swedish prosecutors to pay him a visit as if what they were after was a cosy chit-chat over a plate of sandwiches, as opposed to handcuffs and a flight to Stockholm.
While this state of cognitive dissonance was confined to him and a dwindling band of supporters, including John Pilger and Vivienne Westwood, it could be regarded as a psychological aberration. But now the strangest thing has happened: Assange’s warped reality has been endorsed by a UN panel which seems to believe it’s the rest of us whose perspective has been skewed.
Last week, the working group tasked with examining the Australian’s claim that he was being “arbitrarily detained” found in his favour, even though he has chosen to stay in the embassy for the specific purpose of avoiding arrest and can walk out any time he chooses; even though his actions mean the victims of his alleged offences – two of whom can no longer be pursued because the statute of limitations has expired – are being denied a proper investigation.
Just to mess with our heads a bit more, the panel also said the UK government should pay Assange compensation for his “ordeal” which seems to have consisted mostly of running on a treadmill, eating carry- outs and giving an occasional blessing from the embassy balcony (although to be fair, there have been recent doubts over his physical and mental well-being).
The panel doesn’t appear to have taken into account that the European Arrest Warrant has already been upheld by several courts including the UK Supreme Court, that Sweden has a highly regarded legal system capable of providing a fair trial or that Assange’s expressed fear that extradition to Sweden would lead to extradition to the US doesn’t stand up given the US could just as easily apply to have him extradited from the UK.
The decision was agreed by three of the four experts who took part. You can just imagine the one dissenter, Ukrainian lawyer Vladimir Tochilovsky, looking in disbelief at the nodding heads and spluttering, “But… but… but” as he wondered what strange universe he’d stumbled into.
The surreal nature of the judgement (which is not binding on British law) has led to much online hilarity with people tweeting about their own experiences of “arbitrary detention” in car parks, supermarkets and pubs. There were images of Ronnie Biggs “arbitrarily detained” on Copacabana Beach. Whether he has spent the last 40-odd years hiding out in a hunting lodge in Kenya or hippy commune in Nepal, the UN panel would presumably be up in arms about the “arbitrary detention” of (the now officially dead) Lord Lucan.
It’s a situation ripe for satire. Yet neither the ruling, nor Assange’s behaviour are laughing matters. For more than three years, the embassy was guarded by police officers 24/7 at a cost of £10,000 a day, a total of £11m, although they were removed in October. Meanwhile, Assange’s alleged victim has had to watch this farce, knowing that, unless the deadlock can be broken, she might never get her day in court.
The ruling also diminishes the plight of all those who have been unfairly deprived of their liberty. It puts Assange on a par with Aung San Suu Kyi and former Maldives president Mohammad Nasheed and feeds into his martyrdom complex.
Before the announcement, the 44-year-old had said he would leave the embassy of his own volition if the UN panel ruled against him, but now he has been “vindicated” he has no intention of submitting himself to the authorities. And, though Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has dismissed the finding as “ridiculous”, he is no more able to force Assange to leave the embassy than he was before. So, depressingly, we appear to be back where we started, with the WikiLeaks One confined to a 30 square metre space – the star of his own psychological drama – and no prospect of closure any time soon.