The moment he steps out of the door of the elegant London mansion where he has been hiding for almost three months, he will be arrested, handcuffed, driven to the airport and sent to Sweden to face charges of sexual assault. But Julian Assange, the blonde Australian founder of the Wikileaks website, has no intention of leaving the Ecuadorian Embassy where he has been granted political asylum, and so the police patrolling the streets outside have settled down to wait. It could be a long wait.
The Assange case is one of the most bizarre diplomatic disputes London has seen for years. To his supporters, he is a martyr to the cause of freedom, a man who published thousands of American diplomatic cables on the internet and is now being pursued by a vengeful White House, intent on prosecuting him in America. To his opponents, he is a reckless, self-centred eccentric who is attempting to evade serious personal charges in Sweden by suggesting he is at risk of extradition to America.
What has complicated the issue is Assange’s surprise decision to flee into the small Ecuadorian Embassy in London and demand political asylum. He did so just before a British court ruled that he should be extradited to Sweden, where he is accused of serious sexual assault against two women. Britain says it now has a duty, under European law, to arrest him and send him to Sweden. He claims that once he arrives there he will be automatically sent on to America where he could face the death penalty for revealing thousands of diplomatic secrets that put the lives of Americans and their contacts overseas in danger.
Why did Assange run into the Embassy of Ecuador, a faraway country that seems to have little to do with the international furore over the diplomatic secrets published last year by Assange? In fact, Ecuador’s Embassy was a shrewd choice. Rafael Correa, the young Ecuadorian President, is a left-winger instinctively hostile to the United States. He is eager to pose as a champion of liberty, partly because this will distract attention from his own government’s harsh restrictions on the press within Ecuador.
But while Quito was pondering whether to grant Assange his request for asylum, the British Government made an extraordinarily foolish mistake. A low-level official in the Foreign Office, attempting to put pressure on Ecuador, sent a note suggesting that Britain could declare its Embassy no longer protected by diplomatic immunity. The note said that under the Vienna Convention, embassies could not be used to protect criminals wanted by the police, and cited a 1987 court ruling in Britain.
To the Quito government, this suggested that Britain was about to give the police permission to storm the embassy to arrest Assange. The Ecuadorian Foreign Minister accused Britain of an imperialist mentality in bullying the small Latin American nation, and promptly granted Assange asylum.
Britain, deeply embarrassed, insisted it had no intention of storming the Embassy – something that would cause worldwide uproar and would set a dangerous precedent. British embassies around the globe could find themselves under similar threats. But the problem for both Britain and Ecuador now is that neither side can easily break the deadlock, although Quito has accepted British assurances on its London Embassy and quiet talks have begun about resolving the issue. Assange however said he expects to stay in the Embassy for up to a year.
Quito has asked London to grant permission for him to be transferred safely from the Embassy to a flight to Ecuador. Britain has refused. Could Ecuador nevertheless smuggle him out of the country? Despite lurid speculation that he could be concealed in diplomatic ‘baggage,’ this is highly unlikely. In 1984 the Nigerian High Commission tried to smuggle a kidnapped dissident government minister back to Nigeria by drugging him and concealing him in a wooden box, but he was discovered before the box was loaded on to the plane. Nor could Assange put on a disguise and attempt a midnight escape to the airport: the police are watching.
There are also suggestions that Ecuador could give him Ecuadorian citizenship and declare him a member of the Embassy staff, protected by immunity. That would not work, as the host country has to agree in advance to accept anyone posted overseas as a diplomat.
For the moment, therefore, there is a stalemate. Meanwhile, the propaganda war over Assange has stepped up. Ecuador and Assange’s supporters are keen to show that he is in imminent danger from an American arrest order, and have played down the unrelated issue of the sexual assault charges he faces in Sweden. Britain argues that the issue of freedom of speech and American anger over Assange is irrelevant. Washington has made no attempt to extradite him from Britain during the two years that he was living here on bail while Sweden investigated the women’s claims against him. Why should Washington seek to extradite him from Sweden, as Swedish courts are likely to be even more hostile to sending him to the US to face a possible death sentence?
In this propaganda war, several irrelevant issues have cropped up. The first, and most controversial, is whether the sexual assault charges are serious or not. Several of Assange’s supporters have played down the charges, arguing, like Assange, that the woman he is accused of raping consented to his actions. Some politicians have even suggested that rape is not a serious matter, to the fury of many women voters. President Correa dismissed the sex charges against Assange, saying that a man cannot rape a woman with whom he is sharing a bed. He said that the crime of which Assange is accused ‘would not be a crime in 90 to 95 per cent of the world.’
Assange himself has increased the tension by appearing on the balcony of the Embassy – with a loudspeaker provided by its diplomats – to make a statement to his supporters in the street. He again accused the US of trying to seize him for trial in America and insisted that Wikileaks had performed a service to freedom in exposing American actions around the world. He did not once mention the Swedish accusations against him.
His case has not been helped by many of his former friends and collaborators who have spoken out denouncing his character and his actions. Many have said he is a paranoid, narcissistic control freak who is manipulative and ungrateful to his supporters. Several of those who housed him in Britain pending the court hearings on extradition to Sweden said he was a difficult and demanding guest.
How long can the Ecuadorian Embassy afford to keep him as a guest? There are precedents that have lasted a long time. Seven Russian Pentecostalists from Siberia fled into the American Embassy in Moscow in 1978 seeking protection, and remained there for five years, living in a small room in the basement, before they were permitted to emigrate. Cardinal Mindszenty, an opponent of communism, fled into the US Embassy in Budapest in 1956 and remained there for 15 years before leaving for Austria.
Few people think that the Ecuadorians will put up with their awkward and demanding guest for so long. Indeed, some Ecuadorians are now suggesting that it is already time he left. But neither Britain nor Sweden will give a guarantee in advance, as Quito demands, that he will not be sent to America. The Obama Administration, meanwhile, is said to be divided over whether to prosecute him and put in an extradition request. Some believe this would turn him into a ‘martyr,’ while others say that he should be prosecuted as an example to dissuade others from revealing state secrets.
If Assange does go to Sweden, he may be acquitted and can then go wherever he wants. But at present he shows no sign of wanting to set foot outside the door – even though the temptations of the famous Harrods store are only just round the corner