As It Happens

Whether you like Julian Assange or not, his arrest is a threat to press freedom, says friend

Whatever you think of Julian Assange personally, his arrest is a threat to journalists around the world, says his friend and activist Srećko Horvat.

'Everyone who cares about freedom of speech and democracy should be really concerned,' says Srecko Horvat

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is seen in a police van after he was arrested by British police in London on Thursday. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)
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Transcript

Whatever you think of Julian Assange personally, his arrest is a threat to journalists around the world, says his friend and activist Srećko Horvat.  

British police arrested the WikiLeaks founder on Thursday and dragged him from the Ecuadorian embassy, where he'd sought refuge for seven years.

He faces extradition to the United States on one count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion for allegedly helping former U.S. army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning access a classified government computer.

Horvat, founder of Democracy in Europe Movement 2025, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about his friend's arrest. Here is part of their conversation. 

What did you think when you saw those pictures of Julian Assange being taken out of the embassy by police this morning?

To be completely, brutally honest with you, I think it's a scandal that an ambassador of a country which granted him ... political asylum to protect him precisely from being extradited to the United States called the British Metropolitan Police in order to get inside of the Ecuadorian embassy and to drag him out.

I think everyone who cares about freedom of speech and democracy should be really concerned about these images which we have seen today.

Kristinn Hrafnsson, editor in chief of Wikileaks, and barrister Jennifer Robinson talk to the media outside the Westminster Magistrates Court after Assange's arrest. (Hannah McKay/Reuters)

And how did it how did he look to you? What were your impressions of his appearance?

I met Julian plenty of times, only at the Ecuadorian embassy in London. I visited him quite often.

When I started to visit him a few years ago, he was really in a good physical and mental shape. But as the time progressed, especially last time I visited him in November last year, his physical state is really suffering.

Just imagine that in the room in which you are sitting today ... that you didn't exit this room for seven years, that you didn't see the sun for seven years, that you didn't have the opportunity to have fresh air for seven years. 

Instead of dragging him directly to a court, I think if the British state really cares about his human rights, they should have brought him to a hospital in order to have a doctors and medical staff to examine him and to help him, because he has certain problems definitely because of his time at the embassy.

Ecuador ... said Mr. Assange had been meddling in the internal affairs of other states, he had installed electronic equipment that was forbidden and he had mistreated the guards. So doesn't it appear that Mr. Assange had, himself, violated the conditions that could keep him as a person seeking asylum?

I would say it's precisely the other way around. I think that it is the state of Ecuador which violated its own constitution.

Not only that they granted political asylum to Assange and guaranteed that they would protect him, which they didn't, but they also granted him citizenship. So in order to remove his citizenship, they should have a parliament deciding it.

As far as what he has been arrested for — I mean, there were these sexual assault [charges in] Sweden. All of those are now gone, except for failure to appear. What was really the issue for Mr. Assange was what we've now learned: there is an extradition request from the United States. What's his worst fear as far as going to the United States to face this one count of conspiring to hack a computer?

I would say that the U.S. charge, which is now unsealed, is completely ridiculous. Why is it ridiculous? Because first of all, it didn't reveal anything new. We already knew for years that they would try to charge him as a hacker and not as a publisher.

Imagine that the two of us, you and me — you as a journalist and as a publisher, me as a philosopher and a political activist — have a conversation and you are trying to get information out of me.

After I said, "Oh, I cannot give you the information because of that or this reason," imagine that you say, "Curious eyes never run dry."

This is something Julian Assange said to Chelsea Manning. Is this a reason to really charge him? 

Julian Assange speaks to host Carol Off from inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London. 1:13

It's important people know what exactly what he did with Chelsea Manning and what was released. This was an extraordinary trove ... of documents, 400,000 that became known as the Iraq war logs. And some of it was very, very controversial, damning images of people civilians being bombed and killed in that. So it was a considerable embarrassment, to say the least, to the United States. And this is what we're dealing with. This is what he been charged [with]. Do you think it's possible that there is more? Because there are more issues with Mr. Assange than just this one download.

Yes, certainly there is more. I mean, he became an enemy of the United States' deep state and secret services because of many things.

My question is how can publishing about war crimes be worse than the war crimes itself? You know, what about those who committed the war crimes? 

Whatever you think about Julian Assange, whether you like him or not, whether we agree with him or not, I think this is really about freedom of press and what in the future, if Julian Assange is extradited to the United States, a journalist will be able to do.

Assange gestures to the media from a police vehicle on his arrival at Westminster Magistrates court on Thursday. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

There are a lot of journalists who don't see Julian Assange as their champion because they look at what he leaked from [2016 U.S. presidential candidate] Hillary Clinton's emails that were applauded by [U.S. President] Donald Trump. He thanked Julian Assange ... at one point for what he had released, how much it had helped his campaign. And this is a man, a president, who went on to say that journalists are the "enemy of the people." So lots of people, lots of journalists, see Julian Assange as an agent who helped to bring that to be. So what do you say to them?

I think what WikiLeaks did by publishing the Hillary Clinton emails, they really revealed how corrupted the Democratic Party itself was. In what way the Democratic Party was, you know, co-operating with Google for instance, with a private company from Silicon Valley. In what way the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton actually undermined [U.S. presidential candidate] Bernie Sanders.

So, in that way, I think this is information which the American audience ... really needed to know.

Just tell us what it was like for you the last time you saw him, knowing that this possibly ... was going to happen. 

During one of our last visits, I brought him a bottle of sea salt, and the immediate reaction of Julian was to try to drink the sea salt because it has been years, almost a decade, since he didn't taste the sea or see the sea. And that was quite emotional.

I was actually planning to visit him next month in May when I am in London, and I wanted to bring a new bottle of sea salt, but it doesn't really make sense at the moment.

I still hope he will have the opportunity to see the sea and to see the sun again.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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