You’ve got to hand it to Julian Assange. He knows how to capture the imagination. In a surprise escape bid, he is currently holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, seeking political asylum. He now faces arrest for breach of bail conditions, though he can’t be touched by UK authorities while he remains on embassy premises.
How did we get to this impasse? Assange is, of course, the founder of the whistleblower website Wikileaks which has poked some mighty bears, particularly the US government, in publishing enormous amounts of classified information leaked to it.
In August 2010, Assange travelled to Sweden for a series of Wikileaks related public events. While in the country, he had sex with two women, who later went to the police to see if Assange could be compelled to have an HIV test. Those claims have since escalated into allegations of rape and sexual assault. Sweden now seeks his extradition from the UK for questioning in relation to those allegations.
The case is murky. I don’t wish to impugn the allegations, and note that there have been some appalling instances of rape apologism by some of Assange’s supporters. Rape complainants have rights. However, so does Assange, who hasn’t actually been charged with anything (except now, regarding his bail conditions).
Why haven’t Swedish authorities sought to interview Assange in the UK, to at least decide if charges will proceed? As the extradition fight has lasted over 500 days, such a process would have moved things forward faster, surely good for both the complainants and Assange.
And then there’s the strange way in which a Swedish prosecutor quickly decided that Assange had no case to answer and Assange was allowed to leave the country after questioning over a month after the initial complaint, only for the matter to be resurrected by another prosecutor. These odd processes have led many to believe that Sweden wants its hands on Assange so that it can send him to the US.
Assange’s flight to the Ecuadorian embassy is apparently motivated by fear of eventual extradition to the US. Wikileaks’ publications have enraged the government there, which has engaged in an unedifying trawl through its statute books to try to find something to charge Assange with.
Pressure is reportedly being applied to Bradley Manning, the corporal charged with leaking hundreds of thousands of documents to Wikileaks, to implicate Assange in crimes. (Manning himself has been detained since May 2010, including in conditions described as cruel and inhuman by the UN special expert on Torture, and faces life imprisonment).
Finally, Wikileaks has published leaks from the security company Stratfor, which indicate that Assange has already been secretly indicted in the US.
Assange has reason to fear his likely treatment if he is sent to the US. For a start, US prison conditions are often extremely severe, as Manning has found out. Secondly, high profile US politicians and commentators have intemperately labelled Assange a terrorist, and have even called for him to be taken out extrajudicially. Such wild west language may be mere bluster to impress Fox News devotees, but that is cold comfort for its subject.
And the situation wasn’t helped by the baseless labelling of Assange as a criminal by his own government, in the form of Prime Minister Julia Gillard and then Attorney General Robert McClelland (who later had to sheepishly concede that Assange hadn’t committed any crime in Australia).
So what happens now? The asylum claims, based on the future actions of Sweden and the US, are highly speculative. This is one reason why the Australian government hasn’t provided the protection sought by Assange (leading to the dramatic “effective declaration of abandonment” on the Wikileaks site). I suspect it is not common for diplomatic representations to be made with regard to things that haven’t happened yet. Further, if the US wants to extradite Assange, why hasn’t it requested him from the UK?
Finally, powerful due process guarantees do exist to assist Assange in any proceedings in Sweden (in order to resist extradition) or the US (in any subsequent trial). While both countries have been complicit in instances of extraordinary rendition, such disgraceful circumventions of due process are less easy to engineer in the full glare of the publicity which will inevitably surround any course of action involving the high profile Assange.
But, to be fair to Assange, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you. And once he’s in Sweden, quite possibly in detention considering its highly unsatisfactorypre-trial procedures, he’ll have little opportunity to take any sort of control of his own fate. Unlike now.
Regardless, the issue of asylum is now a political question to be determined by the government of Ecuador, apparently within 24 hours. That country is no particular friend of the US, and its President reportedly got on famously with Assange when interviewed on the latter’s chat show (screened on Russia Today) in April.
But then we come to the logistics: how does Assange get out of the embassy, where he is safe, and onto a plane to Quito? A diplomatic car can’t drive all the way up to the airport tarmac. His safe passage out of the embassy can only be achieved with the cooperation of the UK authorities.
An example of such cooperation arose recently when a deal facilitated the safe passage to the US from China of the activist Chen Guangcheng in May on a scholar’s visa.
Otherwise the standoff could be very long indeed. After being granted political asylum in 1956 by the US embassy in Budapest, Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty remained on embassy grounds until 1971 when Pope Paul VI managed to negotiate a deal with Hungary allowing him to leave the country. Less successful was the Panamanian dictator, Manuel Noriega, who sought refuge in the Vatican Embassy in Panama after the US invasion in 1989. After 10 days, Noriega surrendered after being subjected to a barrage of psychological warfare (along with the embassy employees), including the playing of very loud rock music.
The UK probably won’t blast the Ecuadorian embassy with the latest from Lady Gaga, but it seems doubtful that it would choose to favour the interests of Ecuador over the interests of its EU partner Sweden (and, maybe lurking in the background, the US). In which case Assange could be in for a long stay in the embassy. Unless he has another surprise to spring.