For two months before that public appearance, Assange — the founder of WikiLeaks, the organization that published hundreds of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables and military documents in 2010 — had been holed up inside the embassy, where he sought political asylum after Sweden tried to extradite him to face allegations that he had raped one woman and molested another. He claimed that those charges were a ploy to get him extradited to the United States.
And for nearly seven years since, that balcony is about as far as Assange has ventured outside.
But on Thursday, WikiLeaks tweeted that a high-level Ecuadoran official told the organization that Assange would soon be expelled from his haven. There was confusion over how accurate those claims were. On Tuesday, Ecuadoran President Lenín Moreno told Ecuadoran radio that Assange “has violated the agreement we reached with him and his legal counsel too many times.” But on Friday, Ecuador’s foreign minister, José Valencia, tweeted that WikiLeaks’s claims were no more than “unfounded rumors.”
Assange has long feared, even though Sweden has dropped its investigation of him, that if Ecuador kicked him out, he would immediately be arrested in Britain, where he is wanted for skipping bail in 2012. And if that were to happen, he has expressed fears that U.S. authorities would use the opportunity to extradite him to face charges over his WikiLeaks publications.
So how did he get to this point?
In 2010, the same year WikiLeaks published hundreds of thousands of leaked U.S. documents, Swedish officials issued an arrest warrant for Assange. Two women in Sweden had come forward and accused him of rape and molestation. In December that year, British police arrested him on a European warrant and he was released on bail soon after.
But the legal battle continued, with Swedish prosecutors demanding that he be extradited to face the allegations in Sweden and Assange arguing against his removal from Britain. After much back and forth, in May 2012 Britain’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of returning him to Sweden. His attorneys requested a brief delay, and the next month, desperate to avoid extradition, Assange showed up at the Ecuadoran Embassy in London and asked for asylum.
After spending two months in limbo in the embassy, Ecuador approved his request that August.
Three years later, in August 2015, as the strange diplomatic and legal standoff continued, Swedish prosecutors dropped part of their investigation of Assange but held on to the rape investigation. British police had remained stationed outside the embassy at all times in case Assange left the property, but in October 2015 they backed down, saying the response was “no longer proportionate,” even as they continued to pursue his case through other means.
Throughout his time at the embassy, Assange remained largely connected to the outside world through the Internet. In 2016, he even adopted a kitten, named it Michi, and started a Twitter account for it, with a bio that states, “I live in the Ecuadoran Embassy with Julian Assange: Interested in counter-purrveillance.” He told British media that his children had given it to him, but New Yorker magazine later called that narrative into question, reporting that a contact close to Assange said, “Julian stared at the cat for about half an hour, trying to figure out how it could be useful, and then came up with this: Yeah, let’s say it’s from my children.”
In 2017, Swedish prosecutor Marianne Ny announced that Sweden would drop the investigation of Assange. She said that Sweden was “not making a statement about his guilt” but that it didn’t seem possible to get Assange to Sweden “in the foreseeable future.”
But Britain wasn’t willing to back down.
In February 2018, British judge Emma Arbuthnot dismissed claims from Assange’s attorneys that Britain should drop their arrest warrant for him, calling him “a man who wants to impose his terms on the course of justice.” Instead, she upheld Britain’s arrest warrant for Assange and said that if the United States did indeed seek to extradite him, he would have the chance to argue against his extradition through official legal proceedings.
Assange didn’t budge from the embassy.
And there was some indication that the burden of his presence was growing. At one point, Ecuador limited his Internet access. And in late 2018, the embassy issued new house rules for Assange, including that he take care of his cat’s “well-being, food and hygiene” — or risk losing the right to have the cat. He was also told that he had to ask permission in advance for outside visitors to come in and should be responsible for his own food and laundry.
On Friday, Nils Melzer, U.N. special rapporteur on torture, urged Ecuador to continue protecting Assange. In a statement, he said that if Assange is sent to the United States, he could be exposed to “a real risk of serious violations of his human rights, including his freedom of expression, his right to a fair trial and the prohibition of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”