The governments of the US and Ecuador have denied that they conspired to silence Julian Assange, after the WikiLeaks founder’s internet access was cut off at his London embassy home to stop him releasing damaging information about Hillary Clinton’s US election campaign.
Ecuador confirmed late on Tuesday that it had intervened at the weekend to temporarily restrict Assange’s internet access, pointing to a “wealth” of Wikileaks publications “impacting on the US election campaign” as the reason. Wikileaks has released successive dumps of damaging material over recent months from inside the Democratic party and the Clinton campaign, which the US government has blamed on Russian state hacking.
“The government of Ecuador respects the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states,” Ecuador’s foreign ministry said in a statement. “It does not interfere in external electoral processes, nor does it favour any particular candidate.”
The statement, in which Ecuador stressed that it “does not yield to pressure from other states”, followed claims by Wikileaks that John Kerry, the US secretary of state, had requested a private meeting with Ecuador last month – during a visit to Colombia to show support for a peace deal with leftwing rebels – specifically to ask the country to block Assange.
The US state department also denied the claim, saying reports of the meeting were “simply untrue”. “While our concerns about WikiLeaks are longstanding, any suggestion that Secretary Kerry or the state department were involved in shutting down WikiLeaks is false,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement. His deputy, Mark Toner, added later that Kerry had not even met with the Ecuador delegation during the talks. “There just was no meeting,” he said. “They didn’t discuss any of this stuff.”
The confirmation that Ecuador had shut down the internet at least put to rest one bizarre rumour, which surfaced after the Baywatch actress Pamela Anderson visited Assange in the embassy on Saturday, telling reporters she had brought him a vegan sandwich from Pret a Manger.
Three WikiLeaks tweets after her visit, labelled “pre-commitments” and containing strings of code, led to a brief, feverish conspiracy theory that Assange could be dead – with some even pointing to the sandwich as a possible culprit – before the site explained its connection had been “intentionally severed by a state party”.
Neither Wikileaks nor Ecuador’s foreign ministry responded to requests for comment yesterday, and it is unclear whether Assange will have been able to restore his internet access independently. The journalist John Pilger, a close ally and frequent visitor of Assange in the embassy, told the Guardian that Assange “will have a contingency”, and stressed that WikiLeaks was bigger than its founder.
“I can’t imagine that the restrictions will stop the leaks or deter WikiLeaks and Assange,” he said. “The significance of the action by Ecuador, which is clearly under pressure, is to show how frightened the US establishment is of further revelations reaching the public about its preferred presidential candidate.”
WikiLeaks said it had “activated the appropriate contingency plans”, and has continued to tweet links to its stream of damaging email leaks, most recently from the personal email account of the chairman of Clinton’s election campaign, John Podesta. They included transcripts from speeches made to Goldman Sachs bankers in which she avoided any direct criticism of Wall Street, raising questions of an overly cosy relationship with the banking establishment.
But for a man who cannot move beyond a handful of rooms in what is, in essence, a modest apartment, even the temporary loss of his connection with the outside world will be a significant blow and troubling development. Ecuador’s move to silence him points starkly to frustrations at some of Assange’s activities while on diplomatic premises.
Periodic rumours have emerged of strains between Assange and his Ecuadorean hosts in the more than four years he has lived in the embassy. Confidential embassy documents leaked to Buzzfeed News last year revealed Assange had a late-night scuffle with a security guard in the embassy who said he had found the Australian tampering with security equipment in its secure room (Assange said the guard had accosted him).
The documents also showed that embassy staff painstakingly monitor Assange’s movements – referring to him as “Mr Guest” – and contained references both to the stressful situation in which he lives and his “evident anger” and “feelings of superiority”.
Asked about occasional strains to the relationship, Pilger said: “When I met Ecuador’s foreign minister and other officials not long ago, they spoke highly of Assange and Ecuador’s commitment to protect him. I have always regarded this small country’s decision to give him asylum and refuge as a rare example of principle and courage.”
For the foreseeable future, US election or not, Assange is unlikely to be going anywhere. Sweden is still seeking to extradite him over a rape allegation that he denies, and he says that he could face onward extradition to the US, where Wikileaks is being investigated over the Cablegate releases in 2010.
“Ecuador granted political asylum to Julian Assange in 2012 based on his legitimate fears of political persecution,” the country’s statement said, adding that it “reaffirms the asylum granted to [him] and reiterates its intention to safeguard his life and physical integrity until he reaches a safe place.”