The silver-headed fox finally has a home. The freedom-loving paradise of Ecuador, nestled like a purring kitten between Columbia and Peru, has granted WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange asylum. No doubt, he’ll be happy in Latin America. That’s if Britain doesn’t take him from the Ecuadorian embassy by force. By RICHARD POPLAK.
The exploits of boy wonder Julian Assange are familiar to Daily Maverick readers, so we won’t bother with a full rehashing of what landed the world’s greatest lover of Truth and Transparency in the Ecuadorian embassy, itself a bastion of same, no doubt. But for the past several years, Assange has been dodging extradition to Sweden, where he faces two sexual assault charges. That country enjoys the mutual benefit of an extradition treaty with the United States and Assange is January through June of their Dudes We’d Love to Waterboard 2012 calendar.
If Assange, who helped dump hundreds of thousands of American cables onto the Internet, doesn’t want a Dick Cheney welcome at Guantanamo Bay, he needs to find a place to live that doesn’t do prisoner swaps with the US. After a long search, he found one. He has spent two not-so pleasurable months inside the Ecuadorian embassy, reportedly sleeping on an air mattress in a back room, getting boxed dinners from The Ivey and, presumably, learning to love empanadas and to ignore the pleas of jailed Ecuadorian journalists, a cohort that grows by the minute.
Britain is not impressed. Now that the thrill of the Olympics is fading, the country needs something to do. Assange fits the bill. The authorities in London penned a letter that the Ecuadorians, not surprisingly, interpreted as a threat. You be the judge:
“You need to be aware that there is a legal base in the UK, the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987, that would allow us to take actions in order to arrest Mr. Assange in the current premises of the Embassy,” the letter said. "We sincerely hope that we do not reach that point, but if you are not capable of resolving this matter of Mr. Assange's presence in your premises, this is an open option for us.”
President Rafael Correa was moved by the missive. To rage, that is. “No one is going to terrorize us,” he fumed. Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño said, “Today we have received from the United Kingdom an explicit threat in writing that they could assault our embassy in London if Ecuador does not hand over Julian Assange. We are not a British colony.” Booya!
With all this heavy handedness going around, someone was liable to do something crazy. Credit the first move to Ecuador. “We have decided to grant political asylum to Mr. Assange,” Patiño announced at a press conference Thursday. “We believe that his fears are legitimate and there are the threats that he could face political persecution. We think (Assange’s) extradition is viable to a country outside the EU. If this happens, he will not get a fair trial and his rights won’t be respected. Most probably he will face a military court in the US. Ecuador has confirmed Assange does not have enough protection from Australia, where he holds citizenship. We trust the UK will offer as soon as possible the guarantee for the safe passage of asylum for Mr Assange and they will respect those international agreements they have signed in the past.”
This commitment to fairness and freedom of expression may come as something of a surprise to the three directors and a columnist at El Universo newspaper, who last year were sentenced to lengthy prison terms for what turned out to be an accurate depiction of Correa as a dictator. Punitive damages of almost $40-million were also imposed on the paper. Emilio Palacio, the opinion editor, suggested Correa should probably face prosecution for ordering the military to open fire on a hospital he was stuck in during a police strike. Eight cops were killed, dozens injured and because the contretemps was, like almost everything in Latin America, classified as a coup, hundreds were arrested.
“The reign of terror marked by a corrupt press has come to an end,” barked Correa, after the verdict. This begs the question: Are Correa & Co. bringing Assange to Quito merely to string him up in the town square as desert for the El Universo saga? Assange, of course, is famously flexible when it comes to maximum transparency. He is allergic to government sponsored cloak and dagger skulduggery. But when it comes to his own background, he likes everyone to keep shtum. He reacted with alarm to a memoir by ex-WikiLeaks partner Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who wrote that Assange made for a poor houseguest, overstaying his welcome by two months and torturing his cat.
Ecuador’s feline population, to say nothing of its women, are probably cowering in fear at the thought of the Grey-Headed One becoming a citizen. Not so fast. Britain is not exactly thrilled at the granting of asylum, and is unwilling to allow Assange to slip its grasp.
“We remain committed to a negotiated solution that allows us to carry out our obligations under the Extradition Act,” said the Foreign Office’s Twitter feed following the Ecuadorian statement. “Under our law, with Mr Assange having exhausted all options of appeal UK authorities are under binding obligation to extradite him to Sweden. We shall carry out that obligation.”
Whether we can call such a situation a “Mexican” stand-off without in turn being called racist—Ecuador is miles away from Mexico—we are not sure. One thing we're certain of is that there are no good guys in this scenario. The whole thing seems to be redefining the meaning of hypocrisy and the shrillness in tone of all the players reveal what they have at stake. Britain plays the traditional role as Yankee stooge, Ecuador as Latin American tinpot regime with a chip on its shoulder and Assange as postmodern celebrity hactivist with an impressive hairstyle. Best of luck to them all.
Truth suffers, of course. And transparency. But they never really had a chance in the first place. DM
- Amnesty.org on Correa the Dictator
Photo: A sign reading "Free Assange" is tied to a barrier across from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London August 14 2012. REUTERS/Ki Price