LONDON—When Julian Assange sought refuge in 2011 at an embassy in the heart of London, only one of Britain’s political parties was willing to offer support to the exile in their midst.
Nigel Farage’s U.K. Independence Party, which seemed a fringe movement at the time but became the driving force behind Brexit, swung into action and campaigned against the demand that Assange be returned to Sweden for a police interview on allegations of rape.
Farage and his UKIP colleagues have spoken out publicly in support of Assange numerous times since 2011, but leaked emails seen by The Daily Beast reveal the true extent to which the party apparatus tried to assist the founder of WikiLeaks, which the head of the CIA has since described as a “hostile intelligence service” that cooperated with Russian agents.
The episode raises further questions about links between Farage, Assange and the Russian government. Farage, who is also a favored friend of U.S. President Donald Trump, was spotted emerging from a meeting with Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy in March.
Internal UKIP memos reveal the relationship went back much further: Assange and his lawyer were given the opportunity to contribute directly to speeches given by UKIP on the floor of the European Parliament while branches of the party in and around London were told to send activists to protest against Assange’s proposed judicial surrender to the authorities.
“We need bodies,” read an email request sent to local UKIP associations asking them to send two or three people each as an “astroturf” protest against Assange’s plight when he appeared in court in London in January 2011.
Farage and his UKIP colleagues also reportedly met privately with Assange’s lawyer Mark Stephens, who was repeatedly offered the chance to help craft the party’s words on the case, according to the leaked emails.
Stephens was asked if he or Assange would like to meet a UKIP member of the European Parliament, Gerrard Batten, on January 31 that year “in order to discuss bringing out issues in the case.” He was asked again if he wished “to include a few points to get the message across” on February 5, 2011, before Batten was due to speak in the European Parliament. Batten asked Stephens again if he had “any points that you feel I should or should not mention in the few minutes I get to speak” on February 11.
Batten addressed the European Parliament, standing at Farage’s right hand, on February 14, 2011,. where he raised the prospect that Assange was being mistreated because he was “a political dissident.” He returned to the case in June 2011, telling the parliament in Brussels that the U.S. “need him locked up somewhere” while they work out how to prosecute him.
The UKIP MEP also made a submission on behalf of Assange in his case against extradition, which went all the way to Britain’s Supreme Court in 2012. Last year, Batten wrote on his blog that Assange’s stay in the embassy of Ecuador had been tantamount to “arbitrary arrest and imprisonment.”
When news broke on Friday that Sweden would no longer pursue the allegations against Assange after a seven-year standoff while he hid in an embassy out of the reach of British law enforcement, Batten told The Daily Beast he had never taken a position on the guilt or innocence of Assange.
“I don't really have a view about Mr. Assange. My involvement with him was regarding my opposition to the European Arrest Warrant,” he said. “At the time, eminent British lawyers who looked at it said this would never make it to an English court—these kind of accusations. It didn't sound very sound in the first place.”
Assange hailed Sweden’s decision to stop pursuing the allegations and celebrated the release of Chelsea Manning—one of the first major WikiLeaks leakers—in a speech from the balcony of the embassy in London’s Mayfair.
"We have today won an important victory, but the road is far from over. The proper war is just commencing," he said, promising to accelerate the distribution of material about the CIA. The standoff will continue because there is still an outstanding warrant for Assange’s arrest over skipping bail.
Batten told The Daily Beast he had attended Assange’s lavish 40th birthday party in 2010 but had not met with him since. He said he does not recall whether Stephens or Assange took up his offer to help with his speeches. He also said he had received no donations from anyone connected to WikiLeaks or the Russian government. “If only these people would offer me money, I’d have the luxury of refusing it,” he said.
UKIP has repeatedly denied co-operating with Russia, Russian front organizations, or taking funds from the Kremlin—which would be illegal under British law—but Farage, who was one of the first foreign politicians to meet with Trump after his election, has called for improved relations between Russia, Britain, and the U.S. He also described Vladimir Putin as the foreign leader he most admires.
Last week, Farage refused once again to answer questions about his recent visit to see Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. “That has nothing to do with you,” he snapped at a Die Zeit reporter. “It was a private meeting.”
He has claimed that he met Assange as a journalist—not as a political go-between—but no interview has appeared since the March 9 meeting.
In the same interview, Farage also failed to disclose whether he received payments for his regular appearances on RT, a news channel funded by the Russian government, which paid Assange to produce his own show in 2012.
The secrecy surrounding Farage’s meeting with Assange, prompted speculation that he may have been sent as an emissary from someone in Trump’s orbit. Farage is close to Trump, he has also met the political operative Roger Stone who claimed to have a back-channel to Assange last summer.
Farage has denied that he was carrying a secret message to or from Assange, whose WikiLeaks organization has been accused of influencing the result of last year’s U.S. presidential election with the help of Russian hackers.
One of the UKIP candidates contesting Britain’s election next month told The Daily Beast that there is nothing suspicious about the attitude towards Russia taken by Farage and his party. Nigel Sussman, the parliamentary candidate for Edmonton in North London, says it’s a natural meeting of minds.
“Russia is very credible and commonsensical—and UKIP is very credible and commonsensical,” he said. “There's a synergy of views there.”
Sussman has a more intimate view of Russia than most British politicians. He traveled to Crimea last month as a guest of the Russian parliament, who paid for internal flights, accommodation and food. Sussman says he paid for his own round-trip flights to Russia.
Sussman, the chair of UKIP’s Ilford association, who was on the trip with another former UKIP candidate, met with the local pro-Russian officials and toured the streets of former eastern Ukraine talking to local residents accompanied by cameras from Russia’s state-owned TV Channel 1. Although most of the international community regards Moscow’s covert occupation and annexation of Crimea following as stage-managed vote as illegal and illegitimate, based on his interviews, Sussman says: “Crimea had a perfectly legitimate referendum in my opinion.”
As a result, he has submitted a report to UKIP’s National Executive Committee, which calls for a policy change—demanding that sanctions should be lifted against Russia.
“As far as I can see there don't seem to be a lot of people standing up for Russia right now,” he said. Is UKIP the most pro-Russian party? “Yes, I think it is.”
Sussman is, however, hopeful that Trump will ease relations between Moscow and the West. “I have high hopes for Trump because Trump is going to meet Putin. I think he has said it plain: he wants to be friends with Russia. That sounds like an eminently sensible position for God's sake!”
The UKIP candidate insisted that there was no evidence that Putin’s regime had helped Trump into office, although the U.S. intelligence community is on the record and unanimous in its conviction that Russia tried to influence the outcome. He also explained away Moscow’s reported munificence towards Marine Le Pen. “What happened was Le Pen tried to get a loan from French banks and none of the French banks would lend her any money—and that's outrageous... It's a bit like UKIP, I mean God help us!”
The bottom line: Le Pen’s party received millions of dollars in loans in 2014 from a now defunct Russian bank, and, whether coincidentally or out of conviction, her minions, too, endorsed the Crimean annexation.
The two representatives from Britain on the Crimea tour this year were not joined by any members of Le Pen’s National Front, but the guests included an unlikely array of minor party politicians like Jaroslav Holik from a Czech party with links to Le Pen, or the son of Serbia's Vojislav Seselj, who was acquitted of war crimes and crimes against humanity by a United Nations tribunal in the Hague.
“It's a collection of odds and sods; far left or far right will do, as long as they are open to some Russian support. Some of these are full Russian puppets like the Serbian Radical Party,” said Neil Barnett, the chief executive of Istok Associates, a corporate intelligence and investigations consultancy.
There is evidence that Russia helped UKIP secure Brexit—using its army of online trolls and bots—but there is no proof of collusion or direct funding from the Kremlin, or assistance from WikiLeaks.
Arron Banks, the British businessman who was once UKIP’s biggest donor and set up the unofficial Brexit campaign group Leave.EU, says he has a good relationship with Russia—including long boozy lunches with the Russian ambassador—but says there has been no monetary donation either directly or through his array of offshore companies.
Banks, who was pictured in the entourage that met Trump with Farage in the days just after Trump won the election, gave an extraordinary interview to the Observer newspaper in London last month in which he admitted that his Russian wife had the profile of a Russian spy, then suddenly denied that Russia had bankrolled Brexit—unprompted—and repeatedly defended Putin.
“What you’re talking about is the degree to which the Russians actually—let’s say they influenced the Brexit vote. Say I’m pro-Putin. Nigel said he’s not anti-Putin, if that’s the right word. But all we’ve said is that there are elements of what Russians do that we don’t disagree with. We don’t agree with everything they’re doing, like murdering journalists in the street,” he said.
This “joke” is typical of Banks, who ensures it’s hard to know exactly how seriously his words should be taken at any given moment.
When his old pal Farage was spotted leaving the Ecuadorian embassy in March, original reports said it was unclear why he had been inside the building—not least since Farage claimed to have forgotten.
A newspaper later reported that he had indeed been holding secret talks with Assange, and Banks wrote on Twitter: “Well he didn't go for drinks with the ambassador did he?”
Another multi-millionaire with loose-lips, like Trump, Banks seems to revel in offering glimmers of a sprawling axis that runs from Washington D.C. to Moscow via London—and a tiny sliver of Ecuadorian sovereignty.
Whether Assange makes it outside the embassy in the coming days or if he continues to hide from justice—the game of shadows will continue.