x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Fate of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in hands of London magistrate

Julian Assange wants to be known as a man on a mission to shame hypocrisy, but the WikiLeaks founder might have to hang up his designer suits and face the harsh light of criminal justice in Sweden.

Julian Assange has been a very busy man.
Julian Assange has been a very busy man.

LONDON // Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, will discover today if a British judge has concluded that he should be extradited to Sweden to face allegations of sexual assault made by two women in Stockholm last summer.

Even if the judge orders the extradition, it is likely to be merely the opening salvo in an interminable legal battle that will be waged by the 39-year-old Australian and his legal team.

It will keep Mr Assange in the spotlight where, increasingly, he seems to like to be. It also means, though, that questions about his character and motives will remain in the spotlight.

A year ago, few people knew or cared about Julian Assange. Then came the leaks on the war in Afghanistan, then Iraq, and, finally, the slew of more than a quarter of a million secret US diplomatic cables.

Mr Assange suddenly became (ignoring the rape and sexual assault claims in Sweden) either a freedom-of-information hero or a threat to the security of the free world.

More and more, critics have been questioning Mr Assange's motives and tactics. And they have been posed mainly by journalists and former WikiLeaks collaborators.

The controversy has produced some moments of irony bordering on the farcical, such as Mr Assange's threats to sue both The New York Times and The Guardian in London, both publishers of WikiLeaks documents, for printing leaks he had not given his personal approval to be leaked.

There have also been more serious questions about the safety of some of the people named in the documents. Newspapers publishing the leaks have redacted the names of people whom they felt could be endangered if named; WikiLeaks has not always done so.

Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times, recalled an angry phone call he took from Mr Assange late last summer, by which time the newspaper's relations with the Australian "had gone from wary to hostile".

"He was angry that we declined to link our online coverage of the war logs to the WikiLeaks website, a decision we made because we feared, rightly, as it turned out, that its trove would contain the names of low-level informants and make them Taliban targets," Mr Keller wrote in The New York Times.

By this time, according to Mr Keller, Mr Assange had been "transformed by his outlaw celebrity". He adds: "The derelict with the backpack and the sagging socks now wore his hair dyed and styled, and he favoured fashionably skinny suits and ties", Mr Keller wrote.

"He became a kind of cult figure for the European young and left-ish and was evidently a magnet for women."

He had also become, according to Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a former member of Mr Assange's inner circle at WikiLeaks, obsessed with power and money.

Mr Domscheit-Berg, a German computer scientist who was a WikiLeaks spokesman until last autumn, has now been threatened with legal action by Mr Assange over a book he has written about him.

That threat, he said, illustrated that Mr Assange has become "exactly the kind of person he used to hate and wanted to expose".

Mr Domscheit-Berg told a press conference in Berlin last month: "We need to set the record straight before Assange turns into a cult, a pop phenomenon."

In an interview with the BBC earlier this month, Mr Domscheit-Berg said that he remained committed to the WikiLeaks ideal but that he left to start his own organisation, Openleaks, because of concerns among the website's staff over Mr Assange's leadership.

"I believed in nothing in my life as much as this ideal that we pursued and I felt it was crumbling apart" because Mr Assange had become so sensitive to criticism, he said.

Mr Domscheit-Berg, who joined WikiLeaks in 2007, said he originally found Mr Assange to be "inspired and inspiring". But he said that he gradually changed to a point where, when he and other staff tried to raise concerns about the way the website was being run, Mr Assange behaved "like a child clutching on his toy".

Mr Assange's difficulties in coping with the transition from a little-known computer geek living in Nairobi three years ago to a sudden celebrity are perhaps understandable.

Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian, wrote in a blog post: "The media and public were torn between those who saw Assange as a new kind of cyber-messiah and those who regarded him as a James Bond villain.

"We certainly had our moments of difficulty and tension during the course of our joint enterprise. They were caused as much by the difficulty of regular, open communication as by Assange's status as a sometimes confusing mix of source, intermediary and publisher."

Mr Rusbridger, whose assessment of Mr Assange is somewhat more complimentary than the private opinions of Guardian reporters, said that one of the more difficult moments came when Mr Assange was furious because someone within WikiLeaks had leaked documents to the newspaper behind the Australian's back.

"The irony of the situation was almost comic," Mr Rusbridger said, adding that The Guardian's relationship with Mr Assange became "more complicated still when it was suggested to us that we owed some form of protection to Assange as a 'source' by not inquiring too deeply into the sex charges levelled against him in Sweden".

To Mr Assange's followers and supporters worldwide, criticism of the WikiLeaks founder's style and personality is nothing more than a smear campaign mounted by the rich and powerful embarrassed by the leaks.

As Sarah Ellison pointed out in an article in this month's Vanity Fair: "Whatever the differences [between Mr Assange and the newspapers publishing the leaks], the results have been extraordinary.

"Given the range, depth, and accuracy of the leaks, the collaboration has produced by any standard one of the greatest journalistic scoops of the last 30 years."

For all that, though, Mr Assange's immediate future will not be determined by the impact of his leaking of hundreds of thousands of secret documents, but by the decision of a magistrates' court judge in south London later today.

dsapsted@thenational.ae