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The botched extortion scheme that forced the UK’s hand on Assange

This is an extract from the The Most Dangerous Man in the World: Updated Edition, by Andrew Fowler.

A sunny spring evening in Madrid. WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson and the organisation’s Spanish lawyer Aitor Martínez meet up at a café in the palatial Reina Victoria hotel in the city centre. Three men approach their table and introduce themselves.

One is a journalist, the other two are “computer experts”, but what they are doing on that April evening in 2019 involves neither journalism nor any particular expertise in computing. They’ve turned their hands to something far more dangerous and potentially rewarding. 

On a laptop they show Hrafnsson and Martínez an extraordinary sight: video and audio recordings of the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange inside London’s Ecuadorian Embassy where he had taken refuge in 2012, talking with his lawyers, and meeting journalists and supporters. 

The three men want money for the footage and believe they can get 9 million. They will sell to the highest bidder and mention that a foreign TV station is interested. Although Martínez and Hrafnsson want to know why it’s worth anything to see Assange in the embassy, Hrafnsson negotiates with them and discusses the sum of 3 million.

What the amateur extortionists — who claim to be working for freedom of expression and who support Assange — don’t know is that every word is being recorded. Both Hrafnsson and Martínez are wired for sound. 

Martínez asks them, “If you are benefactors working for freedom of expression and for Assange’s legal battle, why do you want money?”

“We have to put food on the table too,” replies one of the men. 

Hrafnsson had been alerted that the material was on offer on Twitter. He had made contact, but he’d also tipped off the Spanish police. Several officers from the kidnapping and extortion department are nearby recording every word of the conversation. The deal has hardly been clinched when the police pounce. The audio recordings and surveillance footage, covertly shot by Hrafnsson as he sat at the table, are enough to arrest two of the men. 

It could be reasonably argued that uncovering the espionage operation against Assange might have tipped the scales of justice in his favour. The only charge Assange faced in the United Kingdom at the time was the relatively minor offence of skipping bail when he entered the Ecuadorian Embassy. Sex allegations against him by two Swedish women had long been dropped.

But on April 11, 2019, within hours of Hrafnsson calling a press conference in London to reveal the covert operation at the Ecuadorian Embassy, the Metropolitan Police stormed in and dragged Assange out. 

Exposing the internal surveillance had seemingly forced the British government’s hand. 

Read the entire article here.