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Ola Bini Was Friends with Julian Assange. He Has Spent Two Months in Jail Without Charge in Ecuador

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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange appeared before a magistrates’ court in London Friday, saying his life was “effectively at stake” if the U.K. honors an extradition request from the United States, where he faces 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act. Meanwhile, a friend of Assange’s, Swedish programmer and data privacy activist Ola Bini, is still in prison in Ecuador, after being arrested April 11, the same day Assange was forcibly taken by British authorities from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, and has been jailed ever since without charges. We speak with Vijay Prashad, director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and a friend of Ola Bini.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In London, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange appeared before a magistrates’ court today, saying his life was “effectively at stake” if the U.K. honors an extradition request from the United States, where he faces 17 counts of espionage. Assange is the first journalist or publisher to be indicted under the World War I-era law.

While Assange’s case has dominated international headlines, far less attention has been paid to a friend of Julian Assange who’s been jailed in Ecuador since April 11th, the same day Assange was taken by force by British authorities from the Ecuadorean Embassy in London. Ola Bini is a Swedish programmer and data privacy activist who lives in Ecuador. He has not yet been charged with any crimes, has not been permitted to post bail for his release. The U.S. Justice Department has now said they want to question Ola Bini. Critics say Bini is being targeted because he knew and had visited Assange multiple times at the embassy in London, as well as for his own activism. This is a statement from his lawyers, Carlos Soria speaking last month.

CARLOS SORIA: [translated] This is an embarrassment. Our client is somebody who is innocent and who has contributed to the entire world the development of information privacy. And now, just because he is a friend to Julian Assange or because he travels, they put him in prison. There are no words for this, and we will denounce it both nationally and internationally. … We cannot allow Ecuador to look like this, like a state that persecutes people for the books they read, for the technology they use or for the simple reason of having a friend who is currently being reproached by the world. Before, Assange was appreciated for letting the world know the atrocities committed in other parts of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Still with us is Vijay Prashad, the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. Earlier this week, he published a piece about Ola Bini in the Daily Hampshire Gazette titled “My friend is in a prison in Ecuador.”

Why is he there? Why was he picked up, Vijay Prashad? Why was Ola Bini picked up and jailed in Ecuador the same day Julian Assange was forcibly removed from the Ecuadorean Embassy and put in the Belmarsh Prison in London?

VIJAY PRASHAD: You know, Amy, this is a difficult story for me. I have known Ola Bini for many years. It is still perplexing to myself and to the friends of Ola of why he’s in prison, the El Inca prison in Quito, Ecuador. We don’t know why he’s in prison. There’s no charge against him. There has been some allegations made about his friendship to Julian Assange, but, you know, Amy, if that’s a crime, you and I should be in jail, as well. We have also met him. We have, you know, understood that meeting him is itself not a criminal activity.

Ola Bini is a programmer who spent most of his life trying to create tools to help human rights activists create a shield against surveillance by governments. People who are in the tech world might know the programs called the Tor Browser or Enigmail. These things were developed by Ola. He moved to Ecuador partly because he felt that with the government of Rafael Correa, it would be a good place to do the kind of work he was doing—precisely the opposite of what people are alleging of him, that he broke into this, that and the other government materials. In fact, the opposite: He would create shields to prevent governments from breaking into the kind of databases held by human rights defenders. You’ve got to remember that in the Snowden—Edward Snowden’s revelations, he said that the NSA had been routinely attacking the servers of human rights and other civil society organizations. It was precisely Ola’s mission in life to protect those organizations.

He was picked up on April 11th at Quito airport, while he was on his way to an advertised martial arts training course in Japan. He’s been held in prison for two months. There have been two hearings. No bail has been allowed. And no charge has been put forward. The prosecution in Ecuador has made it seem like a sinister thing that Ola has many computers and Zip drives and so on. You know, when I travel to places, I carry about 10 to 12 Zip drives. That’s because I keep a Zip drive for each story. It’s got nothing in it to seem to be something, you know, sinister or bizarre. These are things that software developers have. They tried to make him seem like a sinister character.

I was even told by another reporter that people were asking if Ola was the code cracker for Julian Assange, which he of course was not, and could not have been the code cracker at all when the materials passed on by Chelsea Manning came to the WikiLeaks organization. You know, that was one of the allegations that was floating around, not put on paper. Ola only met Julian when he was already in the Ecuadorean Embassy, long after the revelations of—very important, crucial revelations that came from Chelsea Manning, also now in prison.

I personally feel that the U.S. government, in trying to make a case against Julian Assange, has sort of swept up people that it thinks might have some evidence against Julian, for instance, having Chelsea Manning once more in prison, having Ola sit in a prison in Ecuador, squeezing them to see if they can either provide evidence against Julian—in Chelsea’s case, she has said she will not do so; in Ola’s case, he says, “I don’t have any evidence”—or that they will point the investigators in a direction to get Julian. I mean, we’ve got to understand that there is a vendetta by the American state against Julian Assange. That’s very clear. And I think there’s a lot of collateral damage around the world in the U.S. state’s attempt to put Julian either in prison for the full length of his life or near that.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Ola Bini speaking last month to CNN en Español, CNN in Spanish.

OLA BINI: They will find nothing, because I haven’t done anything. The only thing I’ve done is being the friend of Julian Assange. … The minister of the interior, María Paula Romo, goes on TV, the same day as I’m detained at the airport, and talks, five hours before my detention order is written—says on TV that I’m detained. That feels to me like the government is out to get me.

REPORTER: Why do you have the impression that Moreno hates you?

OLA BINI: I don’t say in my letter that he hates me. I wonder if he hates me, because subjecting me to something like this, this kind of process where I’m put in prison without any evidence, when I know that I’m innocent because I haven’t done anything, that feels personal to me.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Ola Bini, again, speaking with CNN from jail. He was also asked by CNN about his relationship with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

OLA BINI: Just as me, he believes very strongly in the right to privacy. So, the first time I went, I actually went to talk to him about these kind of things. … I kept coming back because I like him, because he’s a friend of mine, and I kept coming back because more and more people abandoned him. … I felt that it was my responsibility to do it. But also, it was my pleasure as a friend.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Vijay Prashad, if you could comment further? Again, he’s speaking from jail to CNN. In the case of Julian Assange, we understand that Ecuador was handing over all of his electronic equipment, his hard drives, etc., to the British government. What’s happening with Ola Bini’s electronic equipment, his phones, his computers? Has the U.S. requested that equipment?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, the United States has been giving the Ecuadorean officials so-called, you know, expertise and help in breaking some of the barriers that Ola–you know, Ola is a very clever person. He has put all kinds of protections to his materials. These are basically off-the-shelf protections called OTR, Off the Record, and so on. So, the Americans initially said that they were going to just assist the Ecuadoreans. Now it seems that the U.S. government has asked for this material to be handed over to the United States directly.

I just want to say something about Ecuador. You know, Ola was asked in that interview if Lenín Moreno hates him. That’s the president of Ecuador. It’s very important to remember that shortly before the Ecuadorean government handed over Julian Assange to the British police, the International Monetary Fund provided Ecuador with a loan of $4.2 billion, and there was also a commercial package of about $6 billion, so a total of $10 billion was transferred to the Ecuadorean government by the auspices of the IMF. This happened just before Julian Assange was handed over to the British authorities, just before Ola was arrested. I mean, we’ve got to understand the position. When you look at these things in sequence, it looks like there must have been a deal. This big, huge package was given to the Ecuadoreans.

At the same time, you know, there’s been an enormous leak of private information from the phone and Gmail account of President Moreno. This information, called the I-N-A or INA Papers, shows direct corruption by Mr. Moreno, including an apartment in Madrid, Spain, and so on. He’s been deeply embarrassed by this and has been lashing out, saying that there are Russian hackers inside Ecuador. In fact, the first arrest of Ola at the airport, the piece of paper he was shown had a Russian name on it, and it was said that it’s a Russian person. When Ola said, “That’s not me. I’m not Russian,” they took the paper away, went back, made a new document with Ola’s name on it and saying he was Swedish, and picked him up.

So, there’s a very strange story here, Amy. We don’t know all the parts of it yet, but we need to put the IMF into the picture. I think we need to put the fact that there’s pressure from the United States on Ecuador now, first, of course, to hand over Julian Assange, and now to, you know, in a sense, do something—we don’t know what—to Ola Bini.

AMY GOODMAN: And very quickly, have you spoken to him in jail? What are the conditions like there?

VIJAY PRASHAD: The conditions are very difficult for Ola. Ola is a vegetarian. He has had a hard time there. And as he said very early into his arrest, that the conditions in Ecuador are bad for all prisoners, Ecuadorean and himself, who is a Swedish person living in Ecuador. He is a very decent and upstanding person. He refused to allow this to become merely about himself, saying the conditions for Ola Bini are bad; he said directly, they’re bad for everybody.

AMY GOODMAN: And Sweden—

VIJAY PRASHAD: But it’s been very difficult—

AMY GOODMAN: Is Sweden doing anything about getting him out?

VIJAY PRASHAD: The Swedish government called in the Ecuadorean ambassador, but Sweden has very little leverage on Ecuador. In fact, it doesn’t have an ambassador in Ecuador, just a counsel. We are hoping that pressure from the U.N. special rapporteur, David Kaye, who has called this an arbitrary detention, will have some impact on other European countries. Even the OAS special rapporteur has said that this is a very arbitrary, dangerous situation, should not be allowed. But, you know, the ability of these U.N. rapporteurs to move an agenda is very limited. And I’m afraid that the pressure from the United States government on Ecuador has basically invalidated the moral standing of European countries and even the United Nations.

AMY GOODMAN: Vijay Prashad, I want to thank you very much for being with us, director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. We will continue to follow Ola Bini’s case, as well as the case of Julian Assange, both picked up more than two months ago. Ola Bini remains imprisoned in Ecuador, and Julian Assange going through extradition hearings right now to the United States at the Belmarsh Prison in London.

Coming up, we look at Advocate, a new prize-winning documentary about the pioneering Israeli attorney Lea Tsemel, who spent five decades defending Palestinians who resist the Israeli occupation. Stay with us.

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