(updated below - Update II [Wed.] - Update III [Wed.] - Update IV [Wed.])
Julian Assange was scheduled within days to turn himself over to British authorities for extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning in connection with a sexual assault case in which he has never been charged. Instead, Assange earlier today went to the Embassy of Ecuador in London and sought asylum from that country under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Ecuadorian Foreign Minister, Ricardo Patino, issued a statement indicating that his government is "evaluating the request" and that Assange will remain under protection at the Embassy pending a decision.
Ecuador may seem like a random choice but it's actually quite rational. In 2010, a top official from that country offered Assange residency (though the Ecuadorian President backtracked after controversy ensued). Earlier this month, Assange interviewed that nation's left-wing President, Rafael Correa, for his television program on RT. Among other things, Correa praised the transparency brought about by WikiLeaks’ release of diplomatic cables as being beneficial for Ecuador (“We have nothing to hide. If anything, the WikiLeaks [releases] have made us stronger”). President Correa also was quite critical of the U.S., explaining the reason he closed the American base in his country this way: "Would you accept a foreign military base in your country? It’s so simple, as I said that at the time, there is no problem in having a U.S. military base in Ecuador but ok, perfect - we can give permission for the intelligence base only if they allow us to install an Ecuadorian base in the United States, a military base. That’s it, no more problem."
Assange has been fighting extradition to Sweden for a year-and-a-half now, during which time he has been under house arrest. He has never been charged with any crime in Sweden, but a prosecutor from that country is seeking his extradition to question him. After the British High Court ruled against him by a 5-2 vote earlier this month, and then refused to re-hear the case last week, his appeals in Britain contesting the extradition are exhausted.
Assange's resolve to avoid extradition to Sweden has nothing to do with a reluctance to face possible sex assault charges there. His concern all along has been that once he's in Swedish custody, he will far more easily be extradited to the U.S.
In general, small countries are more easily coerced and bullied by the U.S., and Sweden in particular has a demonstrated history of aceeding to U.S. demands when it comes to individuals accused of harming American national security. In December, 2001, Sweden handed over two asylum-seekers to the CIA, which then rendered them to be tortured in Egypt. A ruling from the U.N. Human Rights Committee found Sweden in violation of the global ban on torture for its role in that rendition (the two individuals later received a substantial settlement from the Swedish government). The fact that Sweden has unusually oppressive pre-trial procedures -- allowing for extreme levels of secrecy in its judicial proceedings -- only heightens Assange's concern about what will happen to him vis-a-vis the U.S. if he ends up in Swedish custody.
Can anyone claim that Assange's fear of ending up in American custody is anything other than supremely reasonable and rational? Just look at what has happened to people -- especially foreign nationals -- over the last decade who have been accused of harming the national security of the United States.
They're imprisoned -- still -- without a whiff of due process, and President Obama just last year signed a new indefinite detention bill into law. Moreover, Assange need merely look at what the U.S. has done to Bradley Manning, accused of leaking documents and other materials to WikiLeaks: the Army Private was held for almost a year in solitary confinement conditions which a formal U.N. investigation found were "cruel, inhuman and degrading," and he now faces life in prison, charged with a capital offense of aiding Al Qaeda.
Beyond that, the Obama administration has been uniquely obsessed with punishing whistleblowers and stopping leaks. Worse still, the American federal judiciary has been staggeringly subservient to the U.S. Government when it comes to national security cases, rendering defendants accused of harming national security with almost no chance for acquittal. Would you have any confidence in obtaining justice if you were accused of harming U.S. national security and came into the clutches of the American justice system?
Over the past two years, I've spoken with numerous individuals who were once associated with WikiLeaks or who still are. Of those who no longer are, many have said that they stopped even though they believe as much as ever in WikiLeaks' transparency cause, and did so out of fear: not fear that they would be charged with a crime by their own government (they trust the judicial system of their government and are confident they would not be convicted), but out of fear that they would be turned over to the United States. That's the fear people have: ending up in the warped travesty known as the judicial system of the Land of the Free. That is what has motivated Assange to resist extradition to Sweden, and it's what has undoubtedly motivated him to seek asylum from Ecuador.
UPDATE: Just to address some media chatter I'm seeing around: Assange has not "fled" anything, is not a fugitive, and did not concoct some new and exotic procedure to evade legal process. Everyone knows exactly where he is: at Ecuador's Embassy in London. Seeking asylum based on claims of human rights violations (such as unjust extradition) is a widely recognized and long-standing right, as Foreign Policy documented during the recent Chen Guangcheng drama. It's a right that Assange, like everyone else, is entitled to invoke. If Ecuador refuses his asylum request, then he'll be right back in the hands of British authorities and presumably extradited to Sweden without delay. He has a lot at stake, and -- like anyone else accused of serious crimes (though he's not been charged with anything) -- he has every right to invoke all legal procedures available to him.
UPDATE II [Wed.]: This is one of those cases where, unless you include caveats in every other sentence about what you are not arguing, then people feel free to attribute to you arguments you plainly are not making. Here is what I wrote all the way back in December, 2010 about the accusations against Assange in Sweden:
I think it’s deeply irresponsible either to assume his guilt or to assume his innocence until the case plays out. I genuinely have no opinion of the validity of those allegations.
Nothing has changed my view of that since then. It's really not that complicated: (1) Assange, like everyone else, is entitled to a presumption of innocence before he's charged, let alone convicted of anything; (2) the accusations against him are serious and they should be accorded a fair resolution within a proper legal framework; and (3) until then, he has every right -- just like everyone else does -- to invoke any and all available legal protections and to have their validity decided upon.
UPDATE IV [Wed.]: Democracy Now's Amy Goodman and Nermeen Shaikh this morning conducted an excellent interview on all of this with Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who has represented Assange in the U.S. A transcript will be posted here shortly, but it's well worth watching: