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.
Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.