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.
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Cuts to Short money aren't about balancing the books - they're about killing Labour

The Tories, who were once the One Nation party, seem intent on turning Britain into a One Party Nation.

The history of this country has proved time and time again that we Brits don’t like it when the government gets above itself.  A fundamental sense of fair play – chwarae teg we call it in Wales – is our one national defining personality trait. That’s why we hate an overweening executive, we prefer to cut our politicians down to size and we are fundamentally distrustful of demagogues.  It’s also why we think good government needs proper scrutiny and the Opposition is every bit as important a part of the system as the government.

The sense of fair play is intrinsic to how Labour governments have always approached the Opposition.  When Ted Short was the Labour Leader of the Commons he invented ‘Short money’ in 1974 so as to ensure that the Tory Opposition could do its job of holding the Labour government to account properly.  And when Tony Blair became Prime Minister in 1997, with a massive majority in the Commons, we didn’t slash Short money, we trebled it.  The Tories were on their knees politically and financially, but we believed it was in the national interest for the Opposition to be properly resourced. 

The Tories agreed, of course.  Sir George Young, the then Conservative Shadow Leader of the House told his Labour opposite number, Margaret Becket, that “It cannot be right… for Opposition parties to be under-resourced, particularly when… the government have increased substantially, from taxpayers' money, the resources that they receive for their own special advisers.”  Not surprisingly not a single Tory voted against that increase and by 2010 the Tories had banked £46.2m in Short money.

Now the shoe is on the other foot and they’re in government, though, those very same Tories want to force through a 19 per cent cut to both Short Money and the Electoral Commission Policy Development Grant.  That hypocrisy is flagrant enough, but even more amazingly, they seem determined on cutting support for the Opposition while they continue to hire more and more Tory Special Advisers at an ever greater cost to the taxpayer.

The statistics tell their own story.  The proposed cuts to opposition parties amount to £2.1m.  In 2009, the last full year of the last Labour Government, there were 74 special advisers costing £5.9m. But in December last year the Government admitted they have 95 Tory SpAds on the books, costing £8.4m.  That’s £2.5m more a year.  In other words, the Tories think it’s fair play to push through a 19 per cent cut for the opposition and a 42 per cent increase for themselves.

That’s not all.  Since last year, the number of SpAds in the highest pay grade has jumped by 150 per cent, and in the next highest paygrade it has grown from 15 to 26. The number of SpAds paid above £63,0000 a year in the Prime Minister’s Office has increased by 51 per cent and in the Chancellor’s office by a staggering 277.1 per cent.

The Chancellor bangs on about financial rectitude.  He says were all in it together.  Yet he alone has ten SpAds. One of them, Thea Rogers – best known for giving Osborne his weird haircut – received a whopping 42 per cent payrise.  Just leaving aside the self-evident hypocrisy of Osborne enforcing a pay freeze of one per cent on the public sector whilst awarding his own bag carriers a dramatic hike, bear this in mind.  The Chancellor’s SpAds cost the taxpayer at least £540,499 a year dwarfing the entire Labour Party policy development grant of £333,500.   Jeremy Hunt’s three SpAds cost more than any of the minor parties – the SNP, UKIP, the Lib Dems, the DUP and the SDLP – get off the Electoral Commission.

Why this really gets me angry is that Cameron made such a play when he was in Opposition of cutting the number of SpAds.  He swore blind that no cabinet minister would have more than one.  Yet every Secretary of State has at least two SpAds, several have three and the total is now the highest it has ever been under Labour or the Tories. 

There are lots of Tory MPs who tell me they hate this vindictive and partisan aspect of the Cameron/Osborne government.  They too worry that a nasty authoritarian streak is developing.  You can see it in the systematic attack on Trades Unions, the attempt to curb the power of the Lords, the dramatic increase in unamendable secondary legislation for major legislative change, the gagging law on charities, the attack on the BBC and the attempt to water down Freedom of Information laws.

To add insult to injury, the Government’s latest sneaky manoeuvre is not to publish its proposals on Short Money today, when Parliament is sitting, but tomorrow, when we are in recess; and to allow just three weeks for a fake consultation.

Sadly the Tories, who were once the One Nation party, seem intent on turning Britain into a One Party Nation. My suspicion is that decent, fair-minded people will think this is just not fair play and in the end the Government will be forced to back down.  Democracy is not just about winning elections.  It’s also about holding governments to account.  And the one rule of politics is that what goes around comes around.