Remember Julian Assange?
Maybe only vaguely. As his fame is slowly eroded by wave after wave of news cycles, it's surprising to think back on the heady days of 2010, when the WikiLeaks founder was either Public Enemy No. 1 or the world's greatest hero for transparency. These days, he's barely a presence: overshadowed by Edward Snowden, still stranded in Ecuador's embassy in London, struggling to make the same waves he did with the massive, Chelsea Manning-enabled cache "Collateral Murder."
One group that hasn't forgotten about him is the Swedish government, which is still investigating allegations of rape and molestation against Assange. Prosecutors want to interview him, and have insisted that he go to Sweden. Assange has refused, saying that if he goes he might be extradited from there to the United States. He took refuge in the embassy in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden by the U.K. government.
Now Swedish prosecutors say they'll travel to London to speak with Assange. They don't like it, but basically he's managed to run out the clock: The statute of limitations for the crimes will run out soon.
"My view has always been that to perform an interview with him at the Ecuadorean embassy in London would lower the quality of the interview," prosecutor Marianne Ny said in a statement. "Now that time is of the essence, I have viewed it therefore necessary to accept such deficiencies in the investigation and likewise take the risk that the interview does not move the case forward."
Assange's lawyer says he'll meet with the Swedish team, but he won't provide a requested DNA sample, saying he already gave one to the British government.
Experts think it would be challenging for the U.S. to actually have Assange extradited from Sweden. There's been no extradition request, and both Sweden and the U.K. would have to sign off. From one perspective, the Swedish government is now making less than ideal provisions to accommodate a man who is hiding from justice, resisting a lawful warrant for arrest on serious accusations of crime. Predictably, that is not the view of Assange and his defenders. The Julian Assange Defense Fund blasted Ny in a statement:
She has wasted four and a half years of Assange's life—against whom she has never produced a shred of evidence with which to formally charge him with any crime. Moreover, she is directly responsible for wasting millions of pounds of British taxpayers' money that have been spent on the policing of the Ecuadorean embassy in London. Her behaviour is scandalous.
That raises a good point: What exactly has Assange been up to for the last four and a half years?
He founded a political party—the WikiLeaks Party—in an attempt to get himself elected to the Senate in his native Australia, which he thought could help shield him from prosecution, but the party fell apart in chaos. He published a book consisting of a lengthy interview with Google Chairman Eric Schmidt. Meanwhile, WikiLeaks hasn't scored many huge scalps recently, finding itself eclipsed by Snowden.
Assange and the famous American leaker seem to have an uneasy relationship. Assange threatened to release unredacted versions of documents from which journalist Glenn Greenwald—no prude when it comes to transparency—had removed names, though he didn't follow through. In interviews, Snowden has walked a delicate line, on the one hand praising WikiLeaks, but also drawing distinctions between himself and Assange. "We don’t share identical politics. I am not anti-secrecy. I'm pro-accountability. I've made many statements indicating both the importance of secrecy and spying, and my support for the working-level people at the N.S.A. and other agencies," he told Vanity Fair.
The strangest thing is Assange's life inside the embassy. He lives in one-room converted office that's practically a prison—although given the cost of real estate in London, a studio apartment is nothing to sneeze at. He has an Internet connection so he can conduct his work; a Vitamin D lamp (since he hasn't been able to go outside, except on a small balcony, since entering the embassy); a treadmill for exercise; a shower; and a kitchenette. He subsists on takeout meals. Around the embassy, British police patrol at all hours, in case Assange should try to slip away. The tally for security was more than $15 million on last count. ("It is sucking our resources," the Metropolitan Police commissioner recently complained.)
Perhaps surprisingly, there's been little indication that the Ecuadoreans are getting sick of their guest, though he's worn out his welcome with previous hosts. But the ambassador has expressed worries about Assange's health, and Assange said in August 2014 that he intended to leave the embassy soon, but offered no indication of when or where.
In part, that's surely a matter of strategy: He doesn't want to telegraph his moves, given the various law-enforcement groups on his trail. But it's also a reflection of his limited options. Ecuador has granted him asylum, but he has no clear way of getting from London to Quito; any attempt to take him out of the embassy could lead to a major diplomatic standoff between the Ecuadorean and British governments. For now, his best hope may be for the Swedish investigation to end without charges.