At 80, John Shipton thought he would be enjoying his retirement, he tells Michael Clifford. Instead, he is touring European capitals campaigning for his son, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.
A parent’s work is never done. John Shipton entering his ninth decade. He’d like to kick back, maybe learn a few recipes, stroll at a leisurely pace towards the declining years.
But his son needs him. His son’s health is in serious danger and his future looks dark, with the prospect of spending decades, if not the remainder of his life, in prison.
His son is Julian Assange. It’s a name that is familiar to most people, although many would, at this remove, find it difficult to couple his celebrity standing with his talent or achievement.
Assange is an Australian who has been a serious thorn in the side of the powerful. His Wikileaks organisation was responsible for disseminating information that showed what exactly the US and its allies were getting up to in foreign wars.
Wikileaks exposed war crimes. It was the receptor for whistleblower Chelsea Manning’s treasure trove of documents that painted a picture of torture and maltreatment by US forces in Iraq, among other crimes.
Vanity Fair described the resultant stories as “one of the greatest journalistic scoops of the last 30 years… they have changed the way people think about how the world is run”.
In 2011, Assange sought refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London at a time when he was due to be extradited to Sweden on what he claims were trumped-up allegations of sexual assault.
His belief was that Swedish law would make it more easier to pack him off to the US, where he could be tried and imprisoned as an enemy of the state. At the time, the Americans were not actively seeking to extradite him.
So he moved into the Ecuadorian embassy in Knightsbridge and stayed there until declining relations with his host ended with expulsion last April. Following that, he was sentenced to 50 weeks in prison for skipping bail, a term that concluded on September 23.
He is now back on remand awaiting an extradition hearing in response to a request from the US, where he faces charges that carry a penalty of up to 175 years in prison.
He is being detained in Britain’s high-security Belmarsh Prison, which houses some of the worst of the worst of criminals. Assange is a category B prisoner, which means he’s not considered an immediate danger to fellow human beings or society in general, but his conditions of detention are still onerous.
“He’s locked up 22 or 23 hours a day,” his father says. “It’s a grade A maximum security prison. Because those in it are treated like terrorists, that’s what Julian is being subjected to.”
Shipton was in Dublin recently on a flying visit that now forms part of his current “job”. That entails lobbying, meeting, and publicising on behalf of his son. Shipton is on a tour of European capitals trying to round up support.
“I’m at this full time,” he says.
“When I met him I got a bit overwrought and he said to me: “Will you come and help, will you move to the UK?’ What am I going to say? ‘No, I’m going to surfer’s paradise for a holiday.”?
Assange is in a bad way, there is no doubt about that. Both physically and psychologically, his condition is deteriorating. The prison conditions are onerous but they come following eight years cooked up in the embassy, at times under serious stress. The day before arriving in Dublin Shipton had been in to see his son.
“As you would expect after nine years of persecution, he’s a bit down in the dumps,” he says.
“The report of the UN rapporteur on torture says it all really, pointing out that he has every sign of having suffered torture with both physical and mental results.
“The last year and a half in the embassy was pretty rough. He was under constant surveillance, there were microphones everywhere. The place he used to have any meetings in there was the ladies’ loo because it was the only place that there were no mikes.
“There was a problem even getting food during that time. Some weekends he didn’t have any food because they didn’t allow visitors some of the time.”
The UN rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, did visit Assange with two doctors in June in Belmarch and were highly condemnatory of the conditions in which he was being kept.
Last week, Melzer issued a further statement, saying Assange’s life was at risk and that he must not be extradited to the US as a consequence of “exposing serious governmental misconduct”.
“In a cursory response sent nearly five months after my visit, the UK government flatly rejected my findings, without indication any willingness to consider my recommendations, let alone to implement them, or even provide the additional information requested,” Milzer said.
“He continues to be detained under oppressive conditions of isolation and surveillance not justified by his detention status.”
Melzer goes further and offers an opinion on what is driving the harsh treatment.
“In my view, this case has never been about Mr Assange’s guilt or innocence, but about making him pay the price for exposing serious governmental misconduct, including alleged war crimes and corruption,” he says. “Unless the UK urgently changes course and alleviates his inhumane situation, Mr Assange’s continued exposure to arbitrariness and abuse may soon end up costing his life.”
There is, in the narrative of Assange’s plight, one bitter irony to his current predicament.
In 2011, when he sought refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy, the US was not actively pursuing him. Barack Obama’s administration decided to leave him be, most likely weighing up that pursuit of this thorn would be interpreted as a vicious attack on the free press.
Then during the 2016 presidential campaign, Assange’s Wikileaks made an intervention, releasing hundreds of emails originating with Hillary Clinton. The news hit her at the polls, although it’s difficult to assess how damaging they were.
In any event, her rival, Donald Trump, was thrilled with this development. “I love Wikileaks,” he said at the time.
The love wasn’t everlasting. Since coming to power, Trump has railed against many forms of the free press. And his government has requested Assange’s extradition to stand trial for spying.
If he is extradited, his father doesn’t have much confidence in the prospects of a fair trial.
“The espionage law courts are held in Elizabeth, Virginia,” says Shipton. “It’s a town where all the constituents are from the intelligence community. Every judgement in the espionage courts they say just go to jail. It’s not theoretical. If he’s tried he will go to jail.”
The next hearing on extradition isn’t scheduled until February and on the basis that he previously did skip bail while awaiting an extradition hearing he is unlikely to get bail. For his family and close friends, the most immediate issue is his health rather than the political and legal vortex into which he has been drawn.
At a recent court appearance on October 21, he was described by eyewitnesses as appearing “distressed and disorientated”.
He is subject to a legal process, but few could argue that it is anything more than political. Assange published leaked material. In that he was performing an act of journalism.
Manning, for instance, was prosecuted and served seven years of what was originally a 35-year sentence. But Assange’s role was that of publisher.
Much of Wikileaks most serious material was presented in collaboration with leading global newspapers, including the New York Times and The Guardian.
His father believes that the attack on the press through Assange is not fully appreciated.
“It’s in the self interests of all journalists and news corporations to ensure that this is fought,” he says.
The point is well made but is thrown into stark relief by the lukewarm response that Assange’s plight has elicited in much of the media.
Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian at the time of the Manning story, wrote earlier this year that he was opposed to the pursuit of Assange by the US, even though his own relationship with Assange had been fraught.
“We fell out, as most people eventually do with Assange,” says Rusbridger. “I found him mercurial,
untrustworthy and dislikable; he wasn’t keen on me either. All the collaborating editors disapproved of him releasing unredacted material from the Manning trove in September 2011.”
That charge is one that is repeatedly laid at Assange’s door. His father rejects it, saying that, on the eve of publication in 2011, Assange stayed up long into the night redacting the names of up to 10,000 individuals whose lives or livelihoods could be placed in danger.
Yet he has acquired a reputation for being difficult, untrustworthy, and susceptible to sometimes pursuing agendas rather than letting the material speak for itself.
His father has a different take.
“The quality of being innocent of charges does not take into account the characteristics of the person involved,” he says. Shipton’s response to a question about the suggestion by some that his son is his own worst enemy draws a blunt Aussie response.
“That’s horseshit,” he says. “What you’re dealing with reminds me of the line in [TS] Eliot about the King and Thomas Beckett. ‘Will anybody rid me of this turbulent priest?’ A lot of that stuff is designed to just get at Julian with no basis for it.
“Julian is a joy of a man, he’s very positive, sweet natured. He’s determined but he always could get his own way by being charming. He didn’t have to bully anyone.”
Assange was born in Townsville, Australia, in 1971, but his parents split soon after his birth. His mother married an actor, Brett Assange, from whom Julian takes his name.
He had an itinerant childhood, moving over two dozen times with his mother. She didn’t believe informal education, and he had spells being home-schooled, took correspondence courses, and studied informally with college academics.
He developed an interest in and aptitude for computers and began hacking at the age of 16. Later on, he got into programming and worked with different companies and agencies, including a spell assisting the police in tackling child exploitation online.
In 2006, he and others formed Wikileaks which over the following four years published a steady stream of material sourced from secret government files across the world. Then, in 2011, the organisation published the Chelsea Manning material and Wikileaks became a source of both huge admiration among elements of the public, and contempt in the corridors of power.
The allegations of sexual assault in Sweden, which prompted the first attempt to extradite Assange from the UK in 2011, are a particular sore point with his father.
Assange and his supporters were convinced that the whole case was merely a ruse to get him to Sweden from where it would be considered a lot easier to have the US extradite him. That theory was ultimately never put to the test. While he was holed up in the embassy, Sweden dropped the case. Earlier this year, after the exit from the embassy, it was reopened.
“They had this thing for nine years,” Shipton says.
“They abandoned it twice and resurrected it twice. They had four prosecutors. Three of the allegations expired on time and the fourth expires next year. They’re claiming it’s taken all this time to assemble the case against him. Nine years. It took eight years to get a man on the moon.
"A lot of itis prominent people in their legal system wanting their names in the media on the back of Julian. It’s disgusting really.”
After Julian went into the embassy, his father was an annual visitor from Down Under.
“I’d come over from Melbourne for two weeks every Christmas and visit him,” Shipton says.
“And over the years you could easily see how it was getting harder, how his health was deteriorating. He had a particular problem with an abscess in his tooth which left him in terrible pain. At one point, we applied for permission to allow him cross into the UK to access some proper dental treatment but the British authorities wouldn’t allow it.”
And what about the battle ahead, does he think that his son’s extradition can be stopped.
“Naturally I think we will win. But we are going to need help.”
For now, Shipton is focused on getting that help, on doing what he considers to be his job. Over the coming weeks and months he is scheduled to visit Denmark, Switzerland, Sweden, and Germany, and intends an extended stay in Italy, where there is particularly strong support for Assange.
At the end of the interview in a Dublin hotel, a barman appears and asks: “Are you the Julian Assange people?”
The reporter points him to the man’s father in the corner finishing off a sandwich. The barman, who says he is Bulgarian, is over like a shot, eager to shake the hand of the man who sired Julian Assange.
“A great man,” the barman says of Assange. “What is being done to him is all wrong. They are trying to silence him.”
Shipton appears chuffed at the approach, reassured that support for his son is out there in all manner of nooks and crannies of society.
Assange’s extradition hearing is scheduled to begin in February, but the process could drag on for a year after that. If his circumstances don’t change in the interim, fears for his physical and psychological health will inevitably heighten.