MORE than two months have lapsed since the Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, took refuge in the embassy of Ecuador in London. Assange had announced that he was seeking political asylum in Ecuador. His dramatic move had come a few days before he was due to be extradited to Sweden to face a criminal trial. Assange had alleged that the charges against him were politically motivated. Civil society in England and elsewhere has continued to back him.
The president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, has been saying for some time that Assange will be welcome to reside in his country. Before the London Olympics started, Correa had said that he would announce his decision on whether to grant Assange political asylum after the Games formally ended. Correa had first offered asylum to Assange way back in 2010. His stand had come in for strong criticism from Washington. Ecuador is in the forefront of countries in Latin America that are unitedly taking a stand against American hegemony. Correa has said that the mere possibility that Assange faces capital punishment in the US is reason enough for asylum to be granted by the Ecuadorian government. Assange’s mother and the former crusading Spanish judge, Balthazar Garzon, who is now Assange’s lawyer, had travelled to Ecuador in early August to meet the Ecuadorian president.
MOVES AFOOT TO
The British courts had rejected all his appeals, ruling that they were without merit. A Swedish court is demanding that he stand trial in the country after two women alleged sexual assault. The circumstances surrounding the case are murky with Assange claiming that the entire case is a political frame-up to get him ultimately extradited to the US. Senior American politicians, including the serving US vice president, Joseph Biden, have called him a terrorist who has endangered the national security interests of the country. Biden described Assange as “a high tech terrorist” and that he would be considered a criminal under US law if it was established that he had encouraged security analyst Pvt Bradley Manning of the US army, currently lodged in a high security prison, to leak some classified American documents.
Wikileaks had shot to fame in 2010 when the first set of documents were released showing the footage of 18 civilians in Iraq being shot dead from an American helicopter gunship. A few months later, Wikileaks started posting thousands of classified US State Department documents mainly relating to the Afghanistan and Iraq war.
The Pentagon has been issuing open threats against Wikileaks. The Pentagon spokesman had warned that if Wikileaks did not stop its revelations, “then we will figure out other alternatives we have to compel them to do the right thing.” Going by statements emanating from American official sources and media, Assange has said that the Obama administration has already assembled a “secret grand jury” in the US to try him. The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, had gone so far as to accuse Assange of mounting “an attack on the world.”
Sweden, for the last couple of years, has been under a right wing government. One of the chief advisers of the Swedish prime minister is an American right wing ideologue, Karl Rowe, who had helped George W Bush win the American presidency twice. It was the right wing media in Sweden which blew up the sex scandal involving Assange to lurid proportions and demanding that he face Swedish justice. Assange’s lawyers have said that the plan to get him to Sweden was only a ploy “to buy time” for US prosecutors so that they could file charges against him.
Glenn Greenwald, an American constitutional expert, has written that “the evidence that the US seeks to prosecute and extradite Assange is substantial.” He said that there were no doubts that the Obama administration has convened “an active grand jury to investigate whether Wikileaks has violated the draconian Espionage Act of 1917.” He pointed out that key senators from Obama’s own party, including the Senate Intelligence Committee’s chairwoman Dianne Fenstein, have publicly called for the prosecution of Assange under this very provision.
“CLUB OF THE
Michael Ratner of the Centre for Constitutional Rights, which represents Assange in the US, said that his client sought political asylum because he would not “see the light of day for 40 years if he was extradited to Sweden.” The Swedish government has not offered any guarantees that Assange would not be extradited to the US. There have been a few previous instances in which asylum seekers in Sweden were handed over to the US immediately after the events of 9/11. Sections of the US media have started a vilification campaign against Assange for daring to seek asylum in the Ecuadoran embassy in London. When Chinese dissidents seek asylum in the American embassy, they are hailed as freedom fighters.
Before seeking political asylum, Assange had interviewed the Ecuadorian president, Rafael Correa, on behalf of Russia Television (RT). Correa had expressed concerns about Assange’s well being during the course of the free-wheeling interview. Both Correa and Assange had expressed concerns for each other’s safety. “Cheer up Julian. Welcome to the club of the prosecuted,” the Ecuadorian president told Assange. Correa had narrowly escaped physical violence two years ago when a section of the police force had mutinied. The Ecuadoran president is outspoken in his criticism of American policies in the region. He was responsible for the removal of the small American military base in his country. Besides, the US State Department cables put out by Wikileaks relating to Ecuador showed the extent of hostility Washington harboured against the left wing government of Rafael Correa.
The government of Ecuador has said that it is processing Assange’s application for asylum. Assange had personally written to the Ecuadoran president, requesting asylum. In November 2010, the Ecuadorian deputy foreign minister Kintto Lucas had publicly offered Assange residency in Ecuador. “We are open to giving him residency in Ecuador, without any problem and without any condition,” he had said. President Correa was, however, quick to clarify at the time that no formal invitation was extended to Assange and that residency would require legal review in case there was a request. Correa’s statement had come just week before Assange was arrested by the British police in late 2010. He was later allowed to be placed under house arrest by the British courts and was allowed relative freedom while being under strict surveillance.
Under the conditions of his house arrest, Assange was made to wear an electronic tag to monitor his movements. His friends and well wishers had posted a bail of 4,37,000 dollars. Despite being closely watched, he managed to slip into the Ecuadorian embassy compound in London. His friends and supporters are not complaining about his action or the forfeiture of the large bail amount. Assange’s mother, Christine, hailed her son’s decision while expressing the hope that Ecuador would give him asylum. “Julian is a political prisoner, a journalist, a publisher of the truth about corruption, war crimes, kidnapping, blackmail and manipulation — He remains uncharged and unquestioned on a crime which, if you explore it, has absolutely no basis. Of course, he would seek asylum,” she told the media. She blamed the US, Britain, Sweden and Australia for abandoning the due legal processes. Assange holds Australian citizenship but his government was the first to abandon him.
PROBLEM OF SAFE
But even as his application for asylum was being processed, the British police sent a notice to Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy demanding that he show up at a London police station “at a date and time of our choosing.” Assange and his lawyers have rejected the demand, saying that “asylum law both domestically and internationally take precedence over extradition laws.” In an interview with the BBC on June 28, Assange said that he had no plans to give himself up.
However, even if Ecuador eventually gives him asylum, UK laws still do not give him safe passage out of the country. The two countries do not have “a safe conduct agreement” that would have provided Assange a guarantee of safe passage out of the embassy premises to a waiting plane bound for Ecuador. Assange may have to indefinitely stay within the cramped embassy compound if the British authorities are unrelenting.
An international group, called the Friends of Wikileaks, has written a letter to the European Human Rights Court, asking it to put an end “to the unlawful detention of Assange.” The group, which has many prominent names known internationally, wrote that if deported to Sweden, Assange faces “incommunicado detention for an indefinite period of time.” Such a development would “be a violation of the European Convention of Human Rights,” the letter emphasised.
Another letter signed by prominent Americans, including Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, Danny Glover, Naomi Wolf and Oliver Stone supporting Assange’s bid for political asylum, was delivered to the Ecuadorian embassy in London. In all, more than 4000 Americans had signed the letter, urging President Correa to approve Assange’s request. The letter stated that the US administration had “made clear its hostility to Wikileaks” and that Assange faces “the death penalty” in the US if charged under the Espionage Act. The letter urged the Ecuadorian president to grant asylum to Assange “because the ‘crime’ that he has committed is that of practicing journalism.”