Soon after noon on Thursday, Ecuador requested confirmation from Britain that Julian Assange would not be extradited to the US, where he could face charges of treason and potentially even the death penalty. No such commitment was given.
Minutes later, Ecuador granted Assange political asylum. Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino announced: “We believe that his fears are legitimate and there are the threats that he could face political persecution.”
Those fears are well grounded. The US Justice Department has actively sought the prosecution of WikiLeaks under the Espionage Act (dating back to 1917), and evidence released via Wikileaks’ Stratfor files indicate that a sealed indictment against him has already been signed.
If, after questioning, the prosecution is able to form a case against Assange, he must stand trial and answer them. Anything less would not only be a grave injustice but counter-productive in terms of defending Wikileaks and the valuable work it does.
Assange himself had previously offered to submit to questioning in the UK, fulfilling the moral and legal requirements of the assault case without risking his extradition to the US. Likewise, Ecuador’s attempts to speed up the process by offering to host such questioning have likewise been dismissed without justification.
The Ecuadorian embassy in London has come under threat from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, has stated that he considers Assange’s extradition to be a legal obligation which Ecuador’s decision “does not change in any way”.
Even before this announcement, the FCO was threatening to storm the Ecuadorian embassy if its government failed to capitulate. Having vindicated deep-seated fears about the state of press freedom, the Assange case has always been politically contentious, but the intimidation of the embassy itself by the British government has added a new dimension to this diplomatic standoff.
Any intrusion in the embassy would constitute a violation of Ecuador’s sovereignty under the principles of the Vienna Congress: a supposed cornerstone of international law already eroded by waves of imperial aggression against the sovereignty and self-determination of countries like Iraq, Libya and Syria. This, of course, is an imperial habit with which Latin America is very familiar, having endured illegal and violent interventions in Guatemala, Haiti, Panama, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Ecuador itself.
The threat has motivated President Correa to remind the world that Ecuador is “not a British colony”, while Wikileaks has asserted that the UK is obligated to abide by international law and respect the right of political refugees.
The rhetoric emerging from the Foreign Office may be a testament the level of pressure being exercised by the US, where he has been labelled a terrorist by some media outlets which have given a public platform to those calling for his assassination.
Legally, Assange remains innocent until proven guilty. With regard to the allegations of sexual assault which formally underpin the case for extradition, the prosecution has so far not brought any charges against Assange. It would be wrong for him to be given any preferential treatment. But ultimately it is because of Wikileaks that the Assange case has not disappeared like many other allegations of sexual assault which the British state fails to pursue through the courts.
Wikileaks’ investigative journalism has angered US authorities, with its revelations about US operations abroad, a point already made by Tariq Ali, who argued that: “Precisely because of the death of investigative journalism in the mainstream media… Wikileaks acquires a huge importance. It’s doing the job which mainstream journalists refuse to do. And for that alone, we should be grateful to Wikileaks and to Julian Assange.”
Assange's work was key to the exposure of human rights abuses at Guantanamo Bay, shadowy financial dealings, environmental crimes, political corruption and most famously perhaps, the murder of two journalists during the Baghdad Airstrike of 2007.
In the last few days Wikileaks is again demonstrating its worth with the release of further Stratfor files, detailing the grotesque extent of the privately run Trapwire Project, the most advanced and least publicised surveillance system in the world. Trapwire is at once privately run and staffed by former intelligence agents of the CIA.
For almost seven years, the release of hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables has shone a bright light on the cynicism and hypocrisy of America’s foreign policy. This material has proven invaluable for the arguments put forward by the anti-war movement, both here and across the Western world. Ultimately it is this work for which Assange is being persecuted, and for which the integrity of our judicial system is being compromised.
Now is the time to remember what Tony Benn had to say on the subject last year: “If Julian Assange is deported to Sweden then we will have lost a very significant part of this battle that is our battle. And that is why we must give him all the support we possibly can.”
In the parks, halls and public spaces around Kings Cross
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