Diary from Trumpland

Eviction drama

Print edition : May 10, 2019

Lenin Moreno, Ecuador’s President. Photo: Dolores Ochoa/AP

Julian Assange in a February 2016 photograph. Photo: Frank Augstein/AP

The drama around Julian Assange’s arrest is not about bringing him to justice but about moving the narrative away from the war crimes and corruption exposed by WikiLeaks.

JULIAN ASSANGE lived in the Ecuadorian embassy in London from 2012 to 2019. He had taken refuge there not to flee a warrant from the Swedish authorities but to prevent being sent to the United States. Allegations of sexual misconduct in Sweden, including of rape, surfaced in 2010, but the Swedish authorities did not pursue a warrant for his arrest. Rather, it was the U.S. government that wanted him for his role in the WikiLeaks organisation. Assange and WikiLeaks had—thanks to the materials provided to them by Chelsea Manning—released U.S. State Department materials that showed, among other things, widespread evidence of war crimes by the U.S. military. It was for the revelations of war crimes that the U.S. wanted Assange extradited: Washington hoped that Assange would be tried in the U.S. and sentenced to a long prison term. The point was not to punish Assange and Chelsea Manning alone but to discourage any further leaks of this kind.

The Ecuadorian government, at that time led by Rafael Correa, provided Assange with shelter in the London embassy. It did not seem possible that he would spend the next seven years in a tiny room with minimal access to sunlight. It was as if Assange went to prison in 2012, a prison from which he was not fated to be released. Correa, a leftist leader, did not bend when the U.S. put pressure on this small Latin American country. He was quite prepared to fight for Ecuador’s right to give asylum to anyone.

In 2017, Correa left office and his Vice President, Lenin Moreno, took over. The situation in Latin America had by then changed dramatically. High commodity prices, which had bolstered the “pink tide” or the rise of leftist governments, had not been sustained. As economic troubles came to South America, the leftist governments faced serious challenges. In many countries, such as Argentina and Brazil, the Left lost to the Far Right. Moreno, who had pledged to follow Correa’s leftist policy direction, changed tack. He understood that Ecuador needed to make a firm tie with the U.S. to get out of the doldrums of the cascading crises that had hit the continent.

To befriend the U.S., Moreno needed to deal with the issue of Assange. In 2018, Moreno’s government began to restrict Assange’s movements, forcing him to remain for most of the day in his small corner room and denying him access to the Internet. The tussle was entirely in favour of the government, which increased pressure on Assange and waited for him to do things that they could say broke his right to asylum. In late 2017, Moreno organised Assange’s Ecuadorian citizenship in the hope that this would allow him to turn Assange over to the United Kingdom under some sort of diplomatic cover. It did not work. Moreno went to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a loan of over $4 billion, which was provided a month ago. By all indications, Washington encouraged that loan. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visited Moreno in Quito (Ecuador) to get Ecuador’s backing for the U.S. attempt at regime change in Venezuela. Ecuador did join the U.S. efforts, which made it clear that Assange’s home at the London embassy was not going to be permanent. Moreno believed that Assange had become a “stone in our shoe” and that he needed to be evicted. This was said openly.

In late March, the Ecuadorian Congress decided to open an investigation into corruption by Lenin Moreno. The central aspect of the investigation was to be the INA Papers, which had been released in February 2019. The leaked documents, many of them from Moreno’s phone and his gmail account, included pictures of Moreno in compromising positions—including one of him eating a lobster on a hotel bed. At the heart of the papers is evidence that Moreno and his family had used offshore accounts and companies—such as the INA Investment Corporation—to purchase apartments in Spain and other such expensive commodities. It also showed the movement of money into his accounts from unclear sources. This annoyed Moreno. His Vice President Otto Sonnenholzer said: “What WikiLeaks and other political actors have done, to publish private photos of the President of the Republic, of his family, is a despicable, repugnant, and odious act.”

On 1 April, Ecuador went to the U.N. Rapporteur on Privacy to make a complaint against WikiLeaks over the INA Papers.

WikiLeaks claimed that it had not published these papers but only reported on them. It also said that Assange had nothing do with the organisation any longer. Assange’s lawyer in Ecuador, Carlos Poveda, also said: “Assange is no longer the editor [of WikiLeaks].” But Moreno and his government accused Assange and WikiLeaks of having engineered the revelations. On April 2, Moreno revoked Assange’s asylum claiming that Assange had “violated the conditions of his asylum”. “In WikiLeaks,” Moreno said, “there is proof of espionage, of hacking, of the fact that phones have been intercepted and private conversations have been intercepted. There are even pictures of my bedroom.”

Ola Bini’s arrest

On April 11, Moreno’s government welcomed the London police into the Ecuadorian embassy to arrest Assange, now an Ecuadorian citizen. He is being held prior to extradition hearings for his transfer to the U.S. The same day, the Ecuadorian authorities arrested a Swedish man, Ola Bini, who was on his way from Quito to Tokyo. Bini lived in Ecuador and worked in the world of digital privacy and software development. While he was not charged, rumours began to circulate that Bini was part of the WikiLeaks organisation and, along with two unnamed Russian hackers, had tapped Moreno’s phone.

Since Bini was said to have visited Assange 12 times in the London embassy and since he had computer equipment, this all was seen as sinister. That there is no evidence against Bini was irrelevant. A story was built up to divert attention away from the IMF loan and its conditions as well as from the corruption scandal. It was no longer the INA Papers, but Bini, that became the story.

In the same way, it is no longer the war crimes that Assange and Chelsea Manning revealed that are the story but Assange himself. The U.S. government held Chelsea Manning for years in a military prison. Now she has been rearrested simply so that she can be pressured to provide evidence against Assange. She has refused to cooperate and remains in prison. There is no evidence against Assange. There is only a story that Assange helped Chelsea Manning to break a password. Since they failed, as even the allegation acknowledges, Assange could get a maximum sentence of five years. This drama is not about Assange’s five-year sentence. It is, as a State Department official told me, designed to chill whistle-blowers.

Bini is not in prison because of anything he did, for there is indeed no evidence of any wrongdoing. Bini is in prison so that he can be put under pressure to provide evidence against Moreno’s main critic, Ricardo Patino, and to provide any evidence he can against Assange. But Bini has no evidence against either. Patino said he had never seen Bini. Assange did not meet Bini before 2013, two years after Chelsea Manning had given him the State Department materials.

There is dust in the air, a fog to prevent clear-sighted discussion on war crimes and corruption. It seems far easier to concentrate on Assange, Chelsea Manning and Bini than on the dead in Baghdad or the money stolen from Ecuador. Media outlets are focussed on the drama of the arrests and the fate of Assange, Chelsea Manning and Bini but are not as seized of the evidence that shows the governments in a bad light. This is precisely what Moreno wanted—to shift the gaze from the INA Papers to Assange and Bini. He got what he wanted. Assange, Chelsea Manning and Bini are in grave peril. Bini is caught in a whirlwind that he had not authored. But that matters little. He is now as much in danger as the other two. All three are collateral damage for powerful institutions that do not want to tell the truth.

Assange’s main companion in the London embassy was a cat that came into his life in 2016. The cat became an Internet sensation with the Twitter account, @EmbassyCat. The whereabouts of Michi, the cat, has provoked discussion in many circles. Either Michi remains in the embassy or has been turned over to Assange’s family and friends. There is mystery here.