Boredom, stress accompany Julian Assange in prison

The once globe-trotting WikiLeaks founder is confined to several hundred square feet of space inside Ecuador's London embassy.

By , Associated Press

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    British police officers stand guard outside the Ecuadorian Embassy in central London, on Aug. 16, after Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino announced that he had granted political asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
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Julian Assange lives in a pricey building in one of London's toniest districts. But he is not staying in the lap of luxury.

The once globe-trotting WikiLeaks founder is confined to several hundred square feet of space inside Ecuador's London embassy. If he goes outside he will be arrested by British police and extradited to Sweden to be questioned about allegations of sexual assault.

The 41-year-old Australian computer expert has spent almost two months inside the embassy of the Latin American country, which on Thursday granted him asylum — but Ecuador lacks any obvious means of gettingAssange past the police officers on the doorstep, onto a plane and out of Britain.

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The Ecuadorean embassy consists of a ground floor apartment, some 10 rooms in all, inside an imposing red-brick apartment block in London's posh Knightsbridge area, practically next door to the luxury department store Harrods.

The mission has no bedrooms or guest accommodation. People who have visited Assange say he is living in an office that has been outfitted with a bed, access to a phone and a connection to the Internet.

A shower has been installed, and the embassy has a small kitchenette. Assange also has received deliveries of pizza and other take-out food.

"It's not quite the Hilton," said Gavin MacFadyen, a supporter who has met with Assange at the embassy.

A treadmill provides some opportunity for exercise, and a sun lamp helps compensate for the lack of natural light.

Assange's mother Christine has said that visiting friends "turn the music on and encourage him to dance with them."

But Christine Assange has expressed fears for her son's health. She said last month that he was facing severe stress after weeks of confinement and more than 18 months fighting legal battles while under strict bail conditions in Britain.

"He is under a lot of stress and it's been long-term stress now for nearly two years and in conditions which are similar to detention," she said.

Experts say the conditions are bound to take a psychological toll.

"He is stuck in no man's land," said Cary Cooper, a psychology professor at England's Lancaster University.

"One of the things that causes people most stress is not having any control," Cooper said. "He has none. The control is in other peoples' hands — the U.K. government, the Ecuadorean government. Not in his."

By any standards, Assange has had a disruptive 18 months. Since December 2010, when he was arrested in London at Sweden's request, Assange has been on police bail under conditions that required him to report daily to police, wear an electronic tag and live at a designated address. He spent more than a year at the rural English home of WikiLeaks supporter and former journalist Vaughan Smith.

That was a country mansion with 600 acres (240 hectares) of land. Assange's room to roam has shrunk dramatically since then.

But Smith, who visited Assange this week, said his friend was holding up well.

"He lives in a small room which can hardly be described as comfortable," Smith told the Evening Standard newspaper. "As a person though, he is happiest behind a computer doing his job. He is coping well.

"He was the same Julian he was when he was staying with me. He is not a sentimental person and so does not miss things other people might miss. He is focused on work."

There are few precedents for the situation Assange finds himself in. One of the most famous is the case of Roman Catholic Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, who sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Budapest in 1956 and remained there for 15 years.

Few think the current stalemate will drag on that long.

Cooper said the most likely outcome, barring a diplomatic agreement between Britain and Ecuador, was that eventually isolation and confinement would drive Assange out of the embassy, even if it meant arrest.

"Ultimately the social incarceration will lead to him coming out," Cooper said. "I don't know when that will happen, but I think he will come out."

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