Julian Assange finally leaves his tiny room, but what was it like in there?

What has seven years in asylum done to the WikiLeaks founder? I went inside a re-creation to imagine life in Assange’s shoes.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
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For the first time in seven years,  Julian Assange 's room is empty. The WikiLeaks founder has been arrested and removed from the tiny Ecuadorian Embassy where he'd lived in self-imposed exile since 2012.

The US immediately unsealed charges against Assange, alleging he engaged in a conspiracy to hack classified Defense Department computers in 2010. Extradition to the US seems a very real possiblity now.

During that seven years Assange was cut off from the world, yet still able to exert his influence on the politics and society that became increasingly remote outside his window. So I cast my mind back to the time I sat at his desk and spent time exploring the strain of being stuck in the tiny space in which Assange had elected to isolate himself.

Sweden Announce That They Are Dropping Rape Charges Against Julian Assange
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Sweden Announce That They Are Dropping Rape Charges Against Julian Assange

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been hidden away in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since June 2012.

Jack Taylor/Getty Images

I sat at the desk surrounded by  WikiLeaks  papers and blinking servers, legal documents and glasses of whiskey scattered across the table. But I wasn't actually in Assange's bolthole: instead, I was in a carefully-crafted replica at the FACT art centre in Liverpool, some 200 miles from Ecuador's embassy in London where Assange infamously holed up.

Seeing Assange hiding out in the embassy, artists Carmen Weisskopf and Domagoj Smoljo, collectively known as Mediengruppe Bitnik, decided to slip him a message. In January 2013 they sent a parcel to the embassy containing a hidden camera, which snapped pictures of its journey and automatically posted them to Twitter . When Assange opened the package, he obligingly posed for the camera.

Contact established, the artists visited the embassy and met with Assange throughout 2013. They weren't allowed to photograph anything, but they claim to have meticulously recorded and reconstructed every detail of Assange's sanctuary so they could erect what they say is a perfect scale re-creation of the tiny room.

I went to Liverpool back in 2017, when Assange had been confined for five years, to get a better sense of a man some call a champion of free speech and transparency, and others denounce as a renegade -- or even a puppet of Russia -- who enables traitors and spies to serve his own political agenda.

A life in limbo

Assange entered the Ecuadorian embassy, a modest red brick building tucked away behind posh department store Harrods, in June 2012. The Australia-born WikiLeaks founder claimed diplomatic asylum to avoid an international arrest warrant issued in Sweden two years earlier over alleged sexual offenses.

He refused to submit to questioning about the allegations, saying that if he was extradited to Sweden he might subsequently be turned over to the United States, where he faces the more daunting prospect of prosecution for publishing classified documents and even espionage. Those charges could lead to years in prison.

A police officer stands outside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

A police officer stands outside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, while WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was still in residence. The embassy takes up just the ground floor and has no outdoor space.

Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images

From then on, the computer programmer remained cut off from his children and the wider world in his strange sanctum somewhere between the White House and the Kremlin. In that time, WikiLeaks revealed a US intelligence agency wiretapped German leader Angela Merkel, published thousands of behind-the-scenes emails from Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential election campaign and revealed CIA secrets in the Vault 7 leak.

In 2017, just before I visited Liverpool, something huge happened: Swedish prosecutors dropped the sexual assault investigation that prompted Assange's flight from authorities. But he remained in his bolthole for another two years, because if he stepped outside he'd be collared by law enforcement on a lesser charge of jumping bail. British police officers have stood watch outside his door the entire time, at a cost to UK taxpayers estimated at £13 million between 2012 and 2015 alone ($16.8 million or AU$22.3 million).

Now he's been nicked by British bobbies, extradition to the US becomes a real possibility.

Another day at the office

I didn't know what to expect when I walked into Julian Assange's office.

Broadcasts from the embassy, as well as photos, YouTube videos and even a TV series offer a look over his shoulder for a rough idea of what his inner sanctum looks like. The entire Ecuadorian Embassy takes up just about 2,153 square feet on one floor, with no outdoor space and no direct sunlight. Standing in the replica, it became real.

Trailing my finger over the jumble of papers stacked on the table, the first thing that struck me was just how unstriking the office was. A desk jutted out from the wall, strewn with snacks and cables and an ancient silver Apple laptop. A round table crowded the middle of the room, with a ThinkPad laptop, Olympus dictaphone and various papers on it. Shelves filled with books, folders and bits of stationery lined the cream-colored walls.

It's just an office. Ordinary, mundane.

Exactly like the type of space many of us are confined in for eight hours a day -- except we get to walk out every night.

Inside Julian Assange's office

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Entering the replica, you know you're stepping inside a copy, a portrait, an artist's impression. The question is -- do these details accurately represent Assange's life?

The artists say they re-created the office from memory. I tried to ask Assange himself how accurate it is, but whoever manages the WikiLeaks Twitter account replied to my direct messages to ask for more information about the exhibition and then stopped answering.

So I asked FACT exhibition curator David Garcia. According to Garcia, in a "post-truth" world, artistic hoaxes and creative interpretations of reality like this turn the tables on those who lie to achieve power. "The artist can be a researcher," he says, "using the tools and traditions of art not only to produce beautiful art but also to investigate, to pull back the curtain and expose how power operates."

Sitting at a desk that looked so like Assange's, I decided to trust the artists and projected myself into Assange's room -- and by extension, into his head.

Watch this: Step inside Julian Assange's office

A jumble of virtually prehistoric Nokia and Samsung phones piled up on the mantlepiece, presumably burners. A cinema ticket served as a mocking reminder of the places Assange can't go. Two photos were stuck in the glass door of a wooden cabinet: a picture of Assange and another of Pirate Bay co-founder Gottfrid Svartholm, who has been in actual prison in Sweden and Denmark on hacking and fraud charges. In the photos, each holds handwritten signs calling for the other's freedom.

Above me, a Vivienne Westwood bag perched atop the bookshelf. Perhaps it was left by the outspoken fashion designer herself -- she's just one of the famous people who visited Assange in the embassy. Yoko Ono, John Cusack, Pamela Anderson, Nigel Farage and Lady Gaga all hung out with Assange there. He's certainly not without human interaction.

Pamela Anderson Delivers Vegan Lunch To Julian Assange At The Ecuadorian Embassy

Actor Pamela Anderson on one of her trips to bring lunch to Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy, clutching a book by another of his celebrity visitors, Vivienne Westwood.

Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images

Looking up, I spied an Anonymous mask eyeing the room from within a cabinet. And half-hidden on the floor behind the desk, resting incongruously, a gas mask and oxygen tank. Assange wouldn't going scuba diving anytime soon: According to the artists, the embassy supplied him a mask in case of a gas or bomb attack.

Taking a closer look, I spied a laptop labeled "Twitter." Printed emails from the US State Department. A Freedom of Information Act request. Folders labeled "Intelligence Iraq," "Scientology," " Snowden ," "Sweden." 

From these details, it was tempting to imagine how Assange sees himself. Prominently displayed on the mantlepiece were a DVD of the 1969 satirical film Putney Swope and a copy of Neal Stevenson's sci-fi novel Zodiac, both stories of lone heroes standing up to corrupt corporations. And the bookshelves were filled with iconoclasts and literary bad boys: James Joyce, Will Self, Irvine Welsh, Slavoj Žižek, Quentin Tarantino.

There were several Douglas Adams books as well -- there's certainly always been something darkly absurd about Assange's situation.

Other items have delicious double meaning: a Kubrick DVD boxset includes The Shining, in which Jack Nicholson played a man slowly going mad in an isolated hotel.

Among the only women on the bookshelf is Virginia Woolf, with A Room of One's Own.

I stayed in this ersatz office for a couple of hours, poking about, taking pictures and notes, and I'd grown bored and fidgety. Try to picture a day in this room turning into hundreds upon thousands of days.

A double-edged sword

Confinement took its toll on Assange almost from the start. A medical and psychological evaluation released by Wikileaks claims he suffered from dental problems and chronic pain in his right shoulder, and frequently lost track of time as his sleep was disrupted.

In September 2012, just three months after entering the embassy, Assange scuffled with an embassy security guard. A few months later, he apparently trashed his room. In response, embassy staff suggested controlling his access to alcohol. Anther contretemps saw embassy staff cut off Assange's internet access. He even sued the Ecuadorian government for curtailing his rights. Ultimately, Ecuadorian authorities blamed Assange's "discourteous and aggressive behavior" as their reason for inviting British police into the embassy to carry him away. 

Psychologist Lesley Perman-Kerr, an associate fellow and chartered member of the British Psychological Society, pointed out in 2017 that Assange was always technically free to leave and to live -- even while confined, he can work and interact with people.

But when isolation stretches into years, Perman-Kerr suggested depression can set in, leading to what she called "a mental shutdown where the person in effect gives up."

Assange never gave up interacting with the outside world, even if just through the computer on his desk. But in this case, Perman-Kerr called technology "a double-edged sword," functioning as both a lifeline and a tormenter starkly underscoring a world in which Assange wasn't fully participating.

"It's like seeing someone prepare a mouthwatering meal but you are unable to smell or taste it," she told me.

Parman-Kerr identified the isolation and disconnection people often feel as they're cut off from the world for increasing periods of time. When experiencing growing physical and mental stress, their actions could "become more bizarre and desperate," she said.

Sitting quietly in the fake office, I heard music drifting through the window from the FACT lobby outside. "Thorn In My Side" by the Eurythmics was playing. And then, with perfect comic timing, the twang of "Freebird" by Lynyrd Skynyrd. I decided to take that as a sign.

Like Julian Assange has finally done, I left the room. Unlike him, I walked free.

This story was first published in June 2017.