The real reason Julian Assange sought asylum

The WikiLeaks chief fears he could face the death penalty in the US for treason.

WikiLeaks is well-known for dropping surprises. But when the whistleblower organisation posted a tweet yesterday afternoon saying “stand by for an extraordinary announcement,” it is doubtful even one of its 1.5 million followers could have predicted what was coming.

Four hours and forty minutes later WikiLeaks dramatically announced that its editor-and-chief, Julian Assange, was at the Ecuadorian embassy in central London where he had made a request for political asylum. Ecuador’s foreign affairs ministry issued a confirmation, saying it was evaluating Assange’s request. Meanwhile it looked like the country’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño Aroca, had already made up his mind as he took to Twitter, posting a series appearing to back the 40-year-old Australian. “We are ready to defend principles, not narrow interests,” he wrote.

Why did Assange take such a drastic course of action? Last week Supreme Court judges ruled he would have to be extradited to Sweden to be questioned over sexual misconduct accusations made against him there in 2010. He has been fighting the extradition for more than eighteen months, principally because he believes that if he is sent to Sweden, he could be held incommunicado and then be ultimately handed over to authorities in the United States, where a Grand Jury is actively investigating him over WikiLeaks’ publication of classified US government documents.

In a statement, Assange said that he was in a “state of helplessness” and felt abandoned by the Australian government, who had failed to intervene in his case. He added that he had been attacked openly by top politicians in Sweden and feared he could eventually face the death penalty in the US for the crimes of treason and espionage.

The timing was unexpected, because the WikiLeaks founder still had the option of asking the European Court of Human Rights to hear an appeal. But in some ways seeking refuge at the Ecuadorian embassy was an obvious choice. Assange interviewed the country’s president, Rafael Correa, recently for his television show, and the two men had a rapport (“WikiLeaks has strengthened us,” Correa beamed). Ecuador previously offered Assange a safe haven in 2010, just a few months before it expelled the US ambassador following WikiLeaks revelations. (It is worth noting, however, the country is not exactly aligned with WikiLeaks ideologically: it has a record on free speech that Human Rights Watch says is the poorest in the region after Cuba.)

Assange will not have taken the decision to ask for asylum lightly. It is a huge step borne out of clear desperation, with massive ramifications to boot. For eighteen months he has been obediently adhering to strict bail conditions – subjected to a curfew forcing him to stay a registered address between the hours of 10pm and 7am, an electronic tag strapped around his ankle that can track his movements. Now Assange is in breach of those conditions and, as a result, the thousands of pounds supporters pledged to secure his release from jail in 2010 may be forfeited.

Police will be actively seeking his arrest – though are currently powerless to do so, as under the terms of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations an embassy is considered “inviolable.” That means UK authorities are not allowed to enter “except with the consent of the head of the mission.” Assange should therefore be safe so long as he is within the confines of the embassy. If he tries to leave, however, he could find himself in trouble.

Historically, people who have sought refuge in embassies have met different fates. Dissident Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng recently fled to the US embassy in Beijing China and negotiated a quick and safe passage out of the country on a flight to New York. But others have not been so lucky. In 1956 a leader of the Hungarian uprising, wanted by Soviet authorities, took refuge at the US embassy in Budapest and ended up spending the next 15 years inside its compound, watched by police around the clock.

For Assange, a man haunted by fears of solitary confinement and a draconian US prosecution, 15 years inside an embassy compound may sound like a preferable option.

The embassy of Ecuador in London where WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange is claiming political asylum. Photograph: Getty Images.
Getty
Show Hide image

"There's nowhere to turn": What it's like to be gay and homeless

Many LGBTQ homeless people cannot ask their families for help. 

Ascania is a 41 mother with a 24 year-old son, who came to the UK from Jamaica in 2002. “I was raped at gunpoint in the area I lived in Jamaica," she says. "They’d found out in the community that I’m a lesbian. They hit the back of my head with a gun- sometimes it is still painful. I had to move from that area, then I went to another part of the island. I lived there for 18 months. People in these communities start to watch you – to see if there are men coming to see you. They begin to be suspicious. Luckily I had a chance to come to the UK before something else happened."

A friend, who was also gay, paid for a ticket for her to reach the UK. She started a relationship, and moved in with her girlfriend, but the girlfriend turned abusive. "It was a nightmare," she remembers. "It ended then I started to sofa surf. Sometimes I would go into pubs meet different girls, go back with them, and sleep over just so I had somewhere to spend the night."

Eventually, Ascania received help from St Mungo's, a homelessness charity, after the LGBT charity Stonewall put her in touch. The charity helped her get food from a food bank, and find somewhere to stay. 

While all homeless people can struggle with physical and mental challenges, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people face extra stigma, discrimination, and rejection by their families.

“That’s why I think LGBTQ projects are important," says Ascania. "From being on the gay scene, I meet all these people and they don’t know about the support available. They’re out there having a really rough time. They don’t know where to turn."

She feels that in shared accommodation, people like herself can be judged for their friends. 

Homeless charities point out that transgender people are particularly at physical risk due to a lack of acceptance and are sometimes turned away from shelters.

Melissa is a trans women in her early 40s. She is now living in transgender accommodation in London provided by the charity St Mungo’s and says she is successfully engaged with drug and alcohol services and rebuilding relationships with her family.

Before beginning her transition she was married with two teenage children and had been in trouble with the police. 

She says the stress of denying her true self led to self-destructive behaviour.

She said: “I was sleeping rough, in graveyards and stairwells. In 2012 I went to prison for nine months. My probation officer put me in touch with St Mungo’s and now I have a really nice place and I hope to become a project worker with the charity. I can see a path forward.”

According to Homeless Link, a national membership charity for organisations working with people who become homeless in England, the causes of homelessness include poor and unsuitable housing, insecurity in the private rented sector, transitioning/leaving accommodation or institutions such as prison, and loss of employment. These circumstances are often coupled with mental health issues, experience of trauma, relationship breakdown, and fleeing domestic violence or abuse.

Awareness of the specific needs of LGBT homeless people is starting to enter mainstream politics. Last month, LGBT Labour passed a motion at its AGM to affiliate to the Labour Campaign to End Homelessness (LCEH). The two organisations will hold a joint event at Labour's annual conference in the autumn.

Sam Stopp, a Labour councillor in Wembley, is chair of LCEH. He said party activists launched the campaign two years ago, because they wanted to do more than talk about the problem. He said: “LGBT homelessness has some specific aspects. If your parents do not support you and you are thrown out of your home that may require a different approach to help people rebuild their lives. There’s not just an economic reason but your sexuality has closed them off.”

Stopp hopes that by aligning Labour activists with homelessness charities, his organisation will be able to provide practical support to people who need it. 

Chris Wills from LGBT Labour’s National Committee, and chair of LGBT Labour North West, said: “The homelessness crisis is worsening. I live in Manchester, where every day I see more and more people sleeping rough – and that’s just the ones we know about, let alone the “hidden homeless”, who are reliant on hostels or going from one friend’s couch to another’s floor night after night.

“This year marks fifty years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales, and huge advances were made for LGBT equality under Labour between 1997 and 2010. Society as a whole has become more tolerant. Yet even now, coming out as LGBT to your family can still often result in you being kicked out onto the streets, or forced to flee the family home due to verbal and physical abuse.”