By Stephanie Kirchgaessner, Dan Collyns and Luke Harding
Russian diplomats held secret talks in London last year with people close to Julian Assange to assess whether they could help him flee the UK, the Guardian has learned.
A tentative plan was devised that would have seen the WikiLeaks founder smuggled out of Ecuador’s London embassy in a diplomatic vehicle and transported to another country.
One ultimate destination, multiple sources have said, was Russia, where Assange would not be at risk of extradition to the U.S. The plan was abandoned after it was deemed too risky.
The operation to extract Assange was provisionally scheduled for Christmas Eve in 2017, one source claimed, and was linked to an unsuccessful attempt by Ecuador to give Assange formal diplomatic status.
The involvement of Russian officials in hatching what was described as a “basic” plan raises new questions about Assange’s ties to the Kremlin. The WikiLeaks editor is a key figure in the ongoing U.S. criminal investigation into Russia’s attempts to sway the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
Robert Mueller, the special counsel conducting the investigation, filed criminal charges in July against a dozen Russian GRU military intelligence officers who allegedly hacked Democratic party servers during the presidential campaign. The indictment claims the hackers sent emails that embarrassed Hillary Clinton to WikiLeaks. The circumstances of the handover are still under investigation.
According to Mueller, WikiLeaks published “over 50,000 documents” stolen by Russian spies. The first tranche arrived on 14 July 2016 as an encrypted attachment.
Assange has denied receiving the stolen emails from Russia.
Details of the Assange escape plan are sketchy. Two sources familiar with the inner workings of the Ecuadorian embassy said that Fidel Narváez, a close confidant of Assange who until recently served as Ecuador’s London consul, served as a point of contact with Moscow.
In an interview with the Guardian, Narváez denied having been involved in discussions with Russia about extracting Assange from the embassy.
Narváez said he visited Russia’s embassy in Kensington twice this year as part of a group of “20-30 more diplomats from different countries”. These were “open-public meetings”, he said, that took place during the “UK-Russian crisis” – a reference to the aftermath of the novichok poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in March.
Sources said the escape plot involved giving Assange diplomatic documents so that Ecuador would be able to claim he enjoyed diplomatic immunity. As part of the operation, Assange was to be collected from the embassy in a diplomatic vehicle.
Four separate sources said the Kremlin was willing to offer support for the plan – including the possibility of allowing Assange to travel to Russia and live there. One of them said that an unidentified Russian businessman served as an intermediary in these discussions.
The possibility that Assange could travel to Ecuador by boat was also considered.
Narváez previously played a role in trying to secure Edward Snowden’s safe passage following his leak of secret NSA material in 2013. Narváez gave the former NSA contractor a so-called safe-conduct pass when he left Hong Kong for Moscow, where Snowden eventually found asylum. At the time, the then president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, said Narváez had issued the pass without the government’s knowledge. The Spanish-language broadcaster Univision reported that Narváez travelled to Moscow the same day that he issued the safe passage document to Snowden; other sources have corroborated this report.
Assange’s Christmas Eve escape was aborted with just days to go, one source claimed. Rommy Vallejo, the head of Ecuador’s intelligence agency, allegedly travelled to the UK on or around 15 December 2017 to oversee the operation and left London when it was called off.
In February Vallejo quit his job and is believed to be in Nicaragua. He is under investigation for the alleged kidnapping in 2012 of a political rival to Correa.
Ecuador’s new president, Lenín Moreno, has said he wants Assange to quit the embassy. In March the government in Quito cut off his internet access and restricted his visitors.
Melinda Taylor, a lawyer specialising in human rights and international criminal law who represents Assange, has denounced his confinement in the embassy.
“I think it is shocking that Assange has been detained arbitrarily for approximately eight years for publishing evidence of war crimes and human rights violations. The UK could end this situation today, by providing assurances that Assange will not be extradited to the United States.”
Sources offered conflicting accounts of who cancelled the Assange operation, but all agreed it was deemed to be too risky. The stumbling block was the UK’s refusal to grant Assange diplomatic protection.
Under UK law, diplomats are immune from criminal prosecution if their diplomatic credentials have been accepted by the British government, and if the Foreign Office has been alerted to the diplomat’s status.