The man in the rubber boots and a thick coat to protect against the evening chill walked purposefully about a farm here, scattering pheasants as he went. He could have been an English gentleman out for a bit of hunting, except he carried no gun.
In his current circumstance, the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is more hunted than hunter, fighting extradition to Sweden on accusations of sexual misconduct while struggling to maintain the influence of WikiLeaks even as he remains here at Ellingham Hall, the country manor house of Vaughan Smith, a former soldier and journalist who runs a restaurant and club for journalists in London.
Assange and a few WikiLeaks staff members who are staying at the farm joined some friends of Smith on Saturday for an outdoor lunch. I took the train up from London to get a first-hand look at Assanges gilded, remote sanctuary.
In December, Assange was unable to meet the terms of bail because he had no permanent address — he is an itinerant who leads a stateless organisation that operates in an online world without borders. Smith, after consulting his wife, Pranvera Shema, decided they would provide Assange with an address, a roof over his head and a place to manage his legal case.
“None of us knew it would go on this long,” Smith said, “but I think that Julian deserves justice in the same way as anyone else, so we have found a way to make it work.”
It has not all been rural bliss. There have been times when as many of 20 people from WikiLeaks stayed at the house. “Id open a cupboard and another one would fall out,” Smith said. And then there is the matter of the farm animals. “Julian messed with my pigs,” Smith said, smiling.
Ellingham Hall, 130 miles north of London, is a working farm, and Assange decided to use the pigs to make a film about the credit card companies that have denied him the means to raise donations. Smith said Assange induced the pigs to break through an electric fence and make themselves at home in a nearby berry patch, a bit of porcine anarchy that did not amuse the farm manager.
Standing near the pig pen at dusk, Assange said it was not his fault, pointing to two young males. “They hacked the fence,” he said, deploying the terminology that has made WikiLeaks and its founder household names.
Assange, who has become “Uncle Julian” to Smiths young children, seems less international man of mystery than a person frozen in the odd circumstance of the moment. He wears an electronic bracelet, reports to the local police every day and, to the extent he can, continues to push the WikiLeaks agenda.
Even here he sees enemies everywhere, suggesting helicopters have swooped in for occasional reconnaissance, and at one point backing me out of a kind of war room near the kitchen. “You cant be in here,” he said, closing the door with a wan smile.
But if Assange is in compliance with the conditions of his bail, he remains at the margins of the law. Federal authorities in the US and Australia continue to investigate whether the release of classified information by WikiLeaks constitutes criminal behavior that has endangered various operatives.