On June 19, 2012, Julian Assange, the Australian journalist who masterminded the anti-secrecy Web site WikiLeaks, took refuge at the Ecuadoran Embassy in London. He had been offered asylum by the South American nation after facing the threat of extradition from Britain to Sweden, where Assange faces charges related to sexual offenses.
Since that day, more than two years ago, Assange has stayed in a small apartment at the embassy. The media circus that once surrounded him has thinned, largely because of the passage of time but also because of the more spectacular leaks of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. Even so, Assange remains under constant surveillance of the British police and would face arrest if he stepped outside.
As such, Assange's announcement that he plans to leave the embassy "soon" was greeted with surprise Monday. What had changed about his situation?
When making his statement, Assange's biggest hope appeared to be that recent changes to British law could affect his potential extradition. These new laws significantly change how British courts deal with extraditions, in particular those in which charges in the country making the request have not been filed yet. That's important, as no charges have been filed against Assange in Sweden, though this is at least partially because in Sweden suspects are charged only after they are arrested.
Legal experts seem sure that these changes cannot help Assange, however – even if they could be applied, they could not be applied to a case retroactively. His extradition case is over: It concluded in 2012 with a decision by Britain's highest court. Assange may be hoping to explore other legal options, but they appear limited. Lawyer Carl Gardner, analyzing these options for his blog, writes that the WikiLeaks founder's position is "legally hopeless." A Home Office spokeswoman confirmed this Monday, adding that Assange had "exhausted all appeal avenues."
If Assange's legal situation hasn't changed, his physical situation may have. Britain's Sky News was one of the first to speculate about Assange possibly leaving the embassy and attributed it to health reasons. "A lot of the fighting spirit seems to have gone out of him. It's also been made clear from those around him that he's quite ill," Sky News crime correspondent Martin Brunt said early Monday. "He's said to have a heart condition, a chronic lung complaint, bad eyesight, high blood pressure, all as a result of ... two years in the Ecuadorian Embassy."
These problems may be partially attributed to a lack of direct sunlight, which studies show can cause a serious health problems. Speaking to the Daily Mail in 2012, just months into his stay, Assange explained the practical issues of a life without access to the outside world: He explained how he ate as much fresh food as he could, took Vitamin D supplements and even began using a UVB lamp (though he admits he ended up looking like a "boiled lobster").
In Monday's news conference, Assange said he would not be leaving the embassy for the reasons Sky News suggested, though he did allude to problems created by a lack of sunlight. Speaking to The Post, Kristinn Hrafnsson, a WikiLeaks spokesman, said that Assange's health was a "private affair” but added that “it has an effect on people to be in a confined space without being able to take a walk in a garden or be exposed to sunlight."
"Even prisoners are allowed an hour a day outdoors," Hrafnsson said.
All in all, it's hard to look at Assange's statement today and see how the situation has changed: He's still in the embassy, it's still deeply unpleasant, and he will still be arrested the moment he walks outside. Unless some kind of deal can be reached with the British government, his only option is to walk outside and get arrested and sent to Sweden. The British government seems unwilling to do the former, and Assange has reiterated his refusal to do the latter. Unless one of these changes, it's hard to see how he could leave the embassy "soon."
All in all, Hrafnsson perhaps summed it up best when he told The Post that Assange's statement was “a declaration of hope rather than a declaration that he would be walking out of the embassy.” Hope, yes, but also desperation.
Karla Adam in London contributed to this post.