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
Show Hide image

The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder