Stefania Maurizi* – Newsweek
“Man is least himself when he talks with his own person. Give a man a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” This famous quote from Oscar Wilde resounded in my head when, wandering around Venice in the spring of 2013, I stumbled into a workshop famous for its Venetian masks. Wilde’s quote has been cited many times in relation to the founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, to convey his intuition that hiding behind an anonymous identity helps truth-tellers in the digital age. It is the concept at the very basis of WikiLeaks’ platform, which allows whistleblowers and sources to submit secret documents anonymously.
As I entered the workshop, which famously provided Stanley Kubrick with masks for the orgy scene in Eyes Wide Shut, a gorgeous Sun-like mask caught my eye. I bought it and in May 2013 took it to the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where Julian Assange was ready to mark the first year of his confinement in the embassy. He had been holed up in there since the 19th of June, 2012. A tiny building, rather depressing and dark even by London standards. Who better to bring some sun there than an Italian? In the six years and ten months he had remained confined between those four walls before his arrest, that Venetian Sun mask was the only sun Julian Assange had seen.
For the last ten years I have worked with him as a media partner for my newspaper, working on all the WikiLeaks documents. In all these years, I have only met him as a free man once, in September 2010. After that meeting, I always met with Assange confined, first under house arrest and then in the embassy.
We journalists witness great suffering on a regular basis whenever we cover natural disasters, or wars, or even meet sources in distressing predicaments. Over the last nine years, it has been sad for me to watch Julian Assange’s health seriously declining, as he spent year after year in a tiny building without even one hour a day outdoors, the hour assured in my country to even some of the most heinous mafia killers. It has also been sad to watch him struggling with confinement. I remember how I once mentioned a nice Italian village in the Mediterranean Sea. He closed his eyes and told me he was trying to remember what it was like to be in the limitless spaces at sea.
I have known Julian for a decade, I have watched from the very start as his case has unfolded, followed and investigated it using the Freedom of Information of Act in four jurisdictions: Sweden, the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia.
In the summer of 2015, when Julian Assange had already spent three years inside the embassy, I decided it was important to access the full documentation on his case to try to reconstruct it using factual information. It was at that point that I filed my comprehensive FOIA request on the Julian Assange and WikiLeaks case in four jurisdictions. I ran up against a real rubber wall, one so persistent that have been forced to sue the Swedish and British authorities.
The documents I have managed to obtain after a lengthy FOIA litigation, which is still ongoing, provide indisputable evidence of the UK’s role in helping to create the legal and diplomatic quagmire which has kept Julian Assange arbitrarily detained since 2010, as established by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD.)
It was the UK Crown Prosecution Service which advised the Swedish prosecutors against the only judicial strategy that could have brought the Swedish rape investigation to a quick closure: questioning Assange in London, rather than trying to extradite him to Stockholm. It was the Crown Prosecution Service which tried to dissuade the Swedish prosecutors from dropping the case in 2013. Why did the Crown Prosecution Service act this way? And why did the Crown Prosecution Service write to their Swedish counterpart: “Please do not think that the case is being dealt with as just another extradition request”?
When I tried to dig into these facts, I discovered crucial gaps in the Crown Prosecution Service’s documents and asked the Service to provide an explanation for them. Their answer was rather incredible: they replied to me and my lawyers that they had destroyed the emails, even though the case is still ongoing, very high-profile and controversial.
The Crown Prosecution Service which destroyed the records is the very same agency in charge of handling the extradition request from the United States, as well as from Sweden, if the Swedish prosecutors reopen the case before the statute of limitations on the rape allegations expires. Will anyone demand transparency and accountability from the Crown Prosecution Service in their handling of the Assange case from the very beginning?
As I watched Scotland Yard arresting Julian Assange and pushing him inside the van, with one of the agents seemingly barely able to hold back laughter, my attention latched onto two details of the scene. One was Assange’s spectral white face, drained by the chronic lack of sunlight. The other was the book of interviews with Gore Vidal he was holding, History of The National Security State, one of the books I had brought to the embassy to help keep his mind busy and working. I gave him Vidal’s book in December 2016, after the US elections, and I knew he would have appreciated Gore Vidal’s brilliant analyses of the US national security state. Julian Assange doesn’t just understand technology, he also understands power.
The WikiLeaks founder is now in prison and no one knows how his fight against extradition to the US will end. His situation appears very precarious. We can only hope that after nine years of this treatment and lack of reaction from the public, the media and the public finally understand that beyond Mr. WikiLeaks, there is a human being: Julian Assange.
*Stefania Maurizi is an investigative journalist for the Italian daily la Repubblica and the author of two books—Dossier WikiLeaks: Segreti Italiani and Una Bomba, Dieci Storie.