lunedì, febbraio 18, 2013

“True democracy is the resistance of people armed with truth against lies.”

Lunch and dinner with Julian Assange, in prison

author
John Keane
Professor of Politics at University of Sydney

Everybody warned this would be no ordinary invitation, and they were right. Three hundred metres from Knightsbridge underground station, just a stone’s throw from fashion-conscious Harrods, I suddenly encounter a wall of police. I try to remember my instructions. Look straight ahead. Avoid eye contact. If asked my name, reply with a question. Ask who authorised them to ask. Climb the stone steps. Act purposefully. Appear to know exactly where you’re heading. I don’t.
Through a set of double doors, I’m confronted by more police officers, this time armed, with meaner faces. “Good afternoon”, I say politely, as I edge towards the receptionist. “I’ve an appointment at the Ecuador embassy. Am I at the correct address?” “Ring the brass bell”, grunts the bored-looking man squatting at his desk. A few minutes later, after some confusion about whether or not my name’s on the appointments list, I’m ushered inside. I’m greeted by the personal assistant of the most wanted man in the world. “Julian is taking a call,” says the well-spoken and debonair young man in black-rimmed glasses. “I’m terribly sorry. Please do have a seat. Would you like some tea, or coffee, or polonium, perhaps?” There’s a smile, but it’s pretty faint. I know I’ve reached my destination: a prison with wit and purpose.
The deadpan irony sets the tone of the lunch and dinner to come. The silver-haired “high-tech terrorist” (Joe Biden’s description) appears quietly, dressed in crumpled slacks, a V-necked pullover, socks. He’s relaxed, and welcoming. The quarters are cramped. We shuffle down a corridor into his office, where we occupy a desk covered in laptops and cables and scraps of paper. It’s black coffee for him and tea for me. I offer gifts that I’m told he’ll like. Popular delicacies from down under: a couple of honeycomb Violet Crumbles, chocolate biscuit Tim Tams, a bottle of Dead Arm shiraz from my native South Australia. I know he likes to read. Lying on his desk is a biography of Martin Luther, the man who harnessed the printing press to split the Church. To add to his collection, I hand my pale-skinned host a small book I’ve mockingly wrapped in black tissue paper with red ribbon, tied in a bow. The noir et rouge and dead arm pranks aren’t lost on him. Nor is the significance of the book: José Saramago’s The Tale of the Unknown Island. Inside its front cover, I’ve scribbled a few words: ‘For Julian Assange, who knows about journeys because there aren’t alternatives.’
I’d been told he might be heavy weather. Fame is a terrible burden, and understandably the famous must find ways of dealing with sycophants, detractors and intruders. People said he’d circle at first, avoid questions, proffer shyness, or perhaps even radiate bored arrogance. It isn’t at all like that. Calm, witty, clear-headed throughout, he’s in a talkative mood. But there’s no small talk.
I tackle the obvious by asking him about life inside his embassy prison. “The issue is not airlessness and lack of sunshine. If anything gets to me it’s the visual monotony of it all.” He explains how we human beings have need of motion, and that our sensory apparatus, when properly “calibrated”, imparts mental and bodily feelings of being in our own self-filmed movie. Physical confinement is sensory deprivation. Sameness drags prisoners down. I tell how the Czech champion of living the truth Václav Havel, when serving a 40-month prison spell, used to find respite from monotony by doing such things as smoking a cigarette in front of a mirror. “Bradley Manning did something similar,” says Assange. “The prison authorities claimed his repeated staring in the mirror was the mark of a disturbed and dangerous character. Despite his protestations that there was nothing else to do, he was put into solitary confinement, caged, naked and stripped of his glasses.”
Life in the Ecuador embassy is nothing like this. It’s a civilised cell. After eight months, Assange tells me, the embassy staff remain unswervingly supportive, friendly and professionally helpful. They get what’s at stake. When delivering messages, they knock politely on his office door, as they did more than a few times during our time together. Yet despite feeling safe, Assange feels the pinch of confinement. He says the “de-calibration” (he uses a term borrowed from physics) that comes with “spatial confinement” is a curse. That’s why he listens to classical music, especially Rachmaninov. He has boxing lessons (gloves are on his study shelf) and works out several times a week (“just to get the room moving around”) with a wiry ex-SAS whistleblower. The need for variety is why he welcomes visitors and why, judging from the long and animated conversation to come, he’s desperately passionate about ideas.
[...]

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