Assange's embassy life is cramped but connected

LONDON Mon Aug 20, 2012 1:15pm EDT

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange prepares to speak from the balcony of Ecuador's embassy, where he is taking refuge in London August 19, 2012. REUTERS/Chris Helgren

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange prepares to speak from the balcony of Ecuador's embassy, where he is taking refuge in London August 19, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Chris Helgren

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LONDON (Reuters) - Living on takeaway meals in a small room with a treadmill to burn off frustrated energy and a vitamin D lamp to make up for a lack of sunlight, Julian Assange has the one material thing he values most: a computer with an Internet connection.

The WikiLeaks founder took refuge nine weeks ago at Ecuador's embassy in London to avoid being extradited to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over alleged rape. Having feared jail, he now finds himself living like a prisoner.

Yet British friend and supporter Vaughan Smith, who hosted Assange at his country mansion for a year during his failed legal battle against extradition, said the Australian was in good spirits and enjoying the virtual freedom of his computer.

"He seemed to be bearing up fine. The key to understanding Assange is that if he's got a computer he's normally happy," Smith told Reuters after he visited the embassy, housed on one floor of a red-brick apartment block in affluent Knightsbridge.

"The thing that concerns him most is the possibility he won't be able to work properly - and that's why he seems less keen on prison cells than on embassies."

On Sunday, the world had its first glimpse of Assange since June 19, when he slipped into the embassy. Last week, Ecuador, led by leftist president Rafael Correa, granted Assange asylum - but Britain still plans to arrest him if he tries to leave.

Appearing on a narrow balcony to berate the United States over what he called its "witch hunt" against his anti-secrecy website, the 41-year-old former computer hacker was in the full glare of the world's media for 10 minutes.

His distinctive white-blond hair now trimmed short, he wore a neatly pressed shirt and tie and appeared in good health, if rather tired. His speech delivered, he paused to survey cheering supporters, busy journalists and stern London police on the street below, before retreating to his private world within.

Smith said Assange was sleeping and working in a single small room that looked like someone's office hastily converted into living quarters. He had started out with an air mattress but that had now been replaced by a real bed.

"It's a small room. It has a window, but I wouldn't describe it as airy. I didn't see any kitchen facilities, though I understand he has access to a microwave. He has access to a shower. A supporter gave him a running machine," said Smith.

He declined to say what the window overlooked because he did not wish to identify the room to outsiders. Those embassy windows which are visible from the street have had curtains drawn all the time since Assange moved in.

"HE CAN DO WHAT HE NEEDS"

"It's pretty tight. He's divided the room up with a bookcase into a sleeping part and a non-sleeping part," said Smith.

"The key thing is he can work. He can hold meetings, he can invite some people in. He can do what he needs to do."

Ecuador granted him asylum on the grounds that Assange might be sent from Sweden to the United States to face WikiLeaks-related charges. Britain will not let him go to Ecuador from the embassy because its courts ruled he should be sent to Stockholm.

Assange's mother Christine, speaking by telephone from Australia, told Reuters she had received personal assurances from Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino that her son would be made as comfortable as possible during his stay.

"As far as the embassy staff go they have been wonderful. The people are extremely nice. Ecuadorean people are genuinely warm. They're making sure he's got good food, he's warm and comfortable," she said.

Christine and Julian Assange speak on the phone when possible but she said their conversations were limited because, she believed, the lines were being monitored.

"There's very little we can say to each other which is personal," she said. "So it's really cut down the traction we can have. But we have a close relationship."

The embassy - which lists its official address as "Flat 3B, 3 Hans Crescent, London SW1" - is on the first floor of a six-storey mansion block, a style of brick apartment building popular around the turn of the last century in London. The block also hosts the Colombian embassy and private apartments.

The Ecuadorean embassy has no outside space beyond narrow balconies, rendering sunshine scarce for long-term inhabitants. WikiLeaks staff emerging from the building last week told supporters camped outside that Assange had a vitamin D lamp inside the room where he was living.

The block is across the street from the rear of Harrods, the luxury department store which draws thousands of shoppers and tourists daily. The store has a loading bay right next door to the embassy and movements of Harrods' trademark olive green trucks and vans have on occasion been blocked by throngs of Assange supporters and news crews filling the street.

Inside, unseen, Assange remains busy at his computer.

(Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

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