Friday, Aug 17, 2012 4:35 PM UTC

Britain’s Assange overreach

The country's threat to storm the Ecuadorean embassy to arrest Julian Assange is as unjustified as it is absurd

Julian Assange

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange arrives at the Supreme Court in London in February.  (Credit: AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

The prosecution of Julian Assange has taken a comically dark twist now that the British government has threatened to storm the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he has sought asylum. Contrary to popular belief, Julian Assange is not a criminal. He has not been charged with or convicted of any crime, nor is he wanted in any country on criminal charges. If the U.K. does raid the Ecuadorean embassy, legally the territory of that country, it will be breaking the law and exposing the fundamental hypocrisy of its claims about the respect of the rule of law internationally.

Not Running From the Law

To reiterate, Julian Assange does not have any outstanding criminal charges against him in Sweden; he is wanted for questioning over allegations of sexual assault that surfaced after WikiLeaks made international headlines for exposing possible war crimes and gross illegality by governments. Were Assange unwilling to face the charges against him, it could be seen as a tacit admission of guilt. But, as both Assange and the government of Ecuador have made clear, he is willing to return to Sweden to confront the allegations against him as long as Sweden guarantees that he will not be extradited to the United States to face other, far more grave charges stemming from WikiLeaks.

The Swedish government has refused to give this minimum assurance, and has also refused numerous opportunities to question Assange on British soil without providing a rationale why. Even Stockholm’s former chief prosecutor, Sven-Erik Allhem, has spoken out to describe his government’s actions in this case as “unreasonable and unprofessional, as well as unfair and disproportionate.” Were Assange to be extradited to the U.S., there is abundant reason to believe that he would not receive a fair trial, and it is on this basis the government of Ecuador has granted him asylum.

This is not a baseless concern. Bradley Manning faces a life sentence for helping WikiLeaks. There is little reason to believe Assange would be treated any better and, in fact, ample reason to believe he would receive even worse treatment than Manning. An indictment is already said to be ready pending his arrival on U.S. soil, and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein has recommended charges against him that would potentially carry the death penalty. The rationale for his asylum application is entirely legitimate given these factors and given the overwhelmingly hostile and prejudicial environment he’d face in a U.S. trial. This has been cited repeatedly by the Ecuadorean government in its decision to grant him political asylum.

Two-Tiered Justice at Home and Abroad

Contrary to the claim that Assange deserves his comeuppance because his organization unfairly focuses on American wrongdoing, WikiLeaks has in fact been responsible for leaks that have contained information directly embarrassing to countless governments around the world, including powerful U.S. adversaries, and even the Ecuadorean government. Despite this, Ecuador has still granted Assange asylum on ethical grounds.

In political terms, there is no obvious benefit for President Rafael Correa’s government to incur the considerable wrath of Britain, but increasingly bellicose threats by the U.K. have only increased his government’s defiance. Britain has shown a willingness to trample the rule of law in order to apprehend Assange, even going so far as to threaten the legally unprecedented step of stripping Ecuador’s embassy of its diplomatic status so that they can send in police to storm it. That the U.K. of all countries should be making such overt threats against the embassy of a sovereign nation is especially hypocritical given that it only very recently voiced its own outrage after student protesters stormed its embassy in Tehran. At the time, the British Foreign Office denounced Iran for failing to uphold its commitments under the Vienna Convention to protect the integrity of foreign embassies on its soil – the very same legal convention that the U.K. is planning to violate in order to remove Assange from Ecuadorean protection.

Banana Republic

The British government has said that it will not allow Assange safe passage out of the country, while Ecuador has granted him safety from persecution as an asylum seeker in its land. While it is still unclear how everything will play out, it is abundantly clear which country is upholding the liberal values of the rule of law and freedom of speech and which is trampling them in order to pursue its own narrow interests. In response to this incident Ecuador’s foreign minister has said in no uncertain terms that “Colonial times are over,” but through its behavior, the United Kingdom and its allies have shown they retain the same imperial condescension toward the ideals of liberal governance and the rule of law that they have held in the past, applying or discarding them whenever it’s convenient. This is the attitude of a banana republic not a liberal democracy, and the fact that such a mentality exists at the highest levels of government shows why people like Julian Assange are necessary to keep official excesses in check – and why people like him are so ruthlessly pursued when they speak out.