In a move that apparently shocked even his close associates, Julian Assange strolled over to the Ecuadorian embassy in London this morning, where he promptly submitted a request for political asylum. From the Guardian:
The audacious bid came less than a week after the supreme court finally rejected his appeal against extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning in connection with accusations of the rape of one woman and sexual assault on another in August 2010, which he denies.
Assange and his supporters have argued that his removal to Sweden could be followed by a possible onward extradition to the US on potential espionage charges, saying he is at risk of the death penalty.
As the Guardian notes, Assange’s choice of Ecuador is a bit ironic. (For similar analysis, see this piece in the FT and this piece in The Atlantic.) Not only did diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks lead to Ecuador’s expulsion of the US ambassador in 2011, but the Correa administration has come under heavy fire for its treatment of journalists and freedom of the press in general. In his recent trip to Bolivia for the 42nd General Assembly of the OAS, Correa “proposed measures that would have prevented publication of an OAS report on the status of freedom of expression in every country in the hemisphere.”
Does Assange’s application have any chance of being accepted? The safe bet is “no.” Even though some observers suggest Correa is positioning himself to become the “next Hugo Chavez” — with the speculation growing as the Venezuelan leader battles cancer — accepting Assange’s bid would be a bold move even by Chavez’s standards.
First off, there is the simple matter of economics. In 2011, Ecuador’s top two trading partners in terms of exports were the United States and the European Union. Can we really expect Correa to place those relationships in risk?
Next, there is the controversial nature of Assange’s request. In a nutshell, Assange claims to be the victim of a bogus prosecution — he admits to having sex with the alleged victims, but he claims the rape and sexual assault charges were invented to pave the way for reprisal for the embarrassing leaks.
Who knows whether any of this true. I’m certainly not familiar enough with the case to pass judgment on the merits. But I will say this: In the absence of extremely compelling proof to support Assange’s claim, don’t expect Ecuador to stick out its neck for the accused.
On the other hand, don’t be surprised if Correa tries to get some political mileage out of this situation. Here, I’ll be the one to go out on a limb: Ecuador takes its time with the application (not too much — a few days at most) and then turns over Assange with a somewhat controversial statement. A warning, in abstract terms, about the dangers of politically-motivated prosecutions, perhaps? Of course, I could easily be way off the mark. One thing is for sure: This is indeed an odd situation.
Hat Tip: Terra Nullius‘s Rhodri Williams.
Here are a few links to some of the more interesting blog posts and articles on this issue. Some seem more reasonable than others, but together they offer a nice range of perspectives: