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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Donald Trump's inauguration signals the start of a new and more unstable era

A century in which the world's hegemonic power was a rational actor is about to give way to a more terrifying reality. 

For close to a century, the United States of America has been the world’s paramount superpower, one motivated by, for good and for bad, a rational and predictable series of motivations around its interests and a commitment to a rules-based global order, albeit one caveated by an awareness of the limits of enforcing that against other world powers.

We are now entering a period in which the world’s paramount superpower is neither led by a rational or predictable actor, has no commitment to a rules-based order, and to an extent it has any guiding principle, they are those set forward in Donald Trump’s inaugural: “we will follow two simple rules: hire American and buy American”, “from this day forth, it’s going to be America first, only America first”.

That means that the jousting between Trump and China will only intensify now that he is in office.  The possibility not only of a trade war, but of a hot war, between the two should not be ruled out.

We also have another signal – if it were needed – that he intends to turn a blind eye to the actions of autocrats around the world.

What does that mean for Brexit? It confirms that those who greeted the news that an US-UK trade deal is a “priority” for the incoming administration, including Theresa May, who described Britain as “front of the queue” for a deal with Trump’s America, should prepare themselves for disappointment.

For Europe in general, it confirms what should already been apparent: the nations of Europe are going to have be much, much more self-reliant in terms of their own security. That increases Britain’s leverage as far as the Brexit talks are concerned, in that Britain’s outsized defence spending will allow it acquire goodwill and trade favours in exchange for its role protecting the European Union’s Eastern border.

That might allow May a better deal out of Brexit than she might have got under Hillary Clinton. But there’s a reason why Trump has increased Britain’s heft as far as security and defence are concerned: it’s because his presidency ushers in an era in which we are all much, much less secure. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.