THE case of Julian Assange is heating up again, and the heat is being felt as far away as a country whose shores border the Pacific Ocean. Assange, you will recall, is the man who two years ago obtained and released confidential US diplomatic correspondence through Wikileaks, generating seismic waves which ricocheted around the world. The British Government is now suggesting it can revoke the immunity of Ecuador’s embassy in London, and the government in Quito has lobbed some diplomatic grenades of its own. You might be inclined to regard this as a tempest in a cocktail glass, but it does have serious implications.
Wikileaks was founded in 2006 and released its first documents in December of that year. Right from the beginning, Assange, a 41-year-old Australian, has been the public face and mouthpiece of the organisation, which has a minuscule staff and relies on volunteers to secure private documents and get them out to the public. Its goal, according to the Wikileaks website, is “to bring important news and information to the public”, and “One of our most important activities is to publish original source material alongside our news stories so readers and historians alike can see evidence of the truth". The organisation also tries to make sure whistle-blowers and journalists are not jailed for electronically disseminating sensitive or classified documents.
From early on it raised the hackles of governments in several capitals when it released documents about equipment and spending in Afghanistan and about corruption in Kenya. But American politicians and highlevel bureaucrats really got their knickers in a twist when, in April 2010, Wikileaks released a video of a helicopter attack in Baghdad in July 2007, in which Iraqi reporters were among those killed. A steady stream of documents poured out of the organisation’s electronic storage tanks until the really big one late in November of that year.
Collaborating with five major newspapers in Spain, Germany, France, Britain and the United States, Wikileaks released the first of more than a quarter-million leaked diplomatic messages from US diplomatic missions around the world. Diplomats of all countries have traditionally used these confidential messages to provide their governments with frank observations about the countries in which they are posted. They also cover the full range of interests of their home countries, ranging from intelligence and counterintelligence to their hosts’ views on climate change and the possibilities of terrorism from various sources. The revelations are credited with at least one concrete result – some analysts attribute reaction by Tunisians to the corruption revealed by the leaks for the overthrow of their president and the introduction of political reform last year.
Naturally, the US government was furious at the release of the documents, not least because of the huge quantity. It also tended to make diplomats gun-shy about using the modern electronic system to send in their remarks, even though the alternative method – the old-fashioned written memo sent by diplomatic pouch – is more cumbersome and less immediate. The US tightened the protective measures in its electronic network, and the State Department, Department of Justice and other arms of the vast machine that occupies Washington swung into action to find whatever means were available to seize Assange and his cohorts and fling the full weight of US law at them.
Assange had taken up residence in Britain and all seemed to be going reasonably well until two women who once volunteered for Wikileaks accused Assange of committing sexual offences against them while he was in Stockholm to give a lecture late in 2010. He claims the sex was consensual and the allegations politically motivated. Swedish authorities asked Britain to extradite Assange to Sweden so that the police can question him about the allegations.
He entered the Ecuadorean embassy on June 19 after the UK’s Supreme Court dismissed his bid to re-open his appeal against extradition and gave him a two-week grace period before extradition proceedings could start. An offer by Ecuador to allow Swedish investigators to interview Assange inside the embassy was rejected. The crux of the matter is that Assange fears that if he goes to Sweden, the authorities will pass him on to the Americans, who have held Private Bradley Manning in harsh custody without trial for more than 800 days on charges of passing government information to Wikileaks. Sweden is angry at Ecuador for the “gross accusations made against the Swedish judicial system”. Its foreign ministry says it is “unacceptable that Ecuador would want to halt the Swedish judicial process and European judicial co-operation”.
Things came to a head two days ago when the British government said it would strip the Ecuadorean embassy of its diplomatic status, leaving open the possibility it could send in police to fish out Assange. Ecuador responded by granting him political asylum. The president, Rafael Correra, shot back: “We are not a British colony.” His foreign minister, Ricardo Patino, says Britain should respect Ecudaor’s decision and “offer the necessary warranties so that both governments can act adequately and properly representing international rights and the rights of asylum”. Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, says his country doesn’t recognise the principle of diplomatic asylum, but adds that there is no threat to storm the embassy. According to Hague, the impasse could go on for a long time.
Britain’s behaviour here can provide solace to militants in Tehran for their attitude and actions towards foreign embassies. We all remember 1979, when a bunch of Iranian militants took over the US embassy and held 52 staff members hostage for 444 days. It was the same Hague who complained, justifiably, last November that Iranian authorities had committed a grave breach of the Vienna convention by neglecting to protect the British embassy from invasion by angry protesters.
And in a case reeking of irony, 106 years ago the British embassy in Tehran gave diplomatic asylum to Iranian dissidents during the Constitutional Revolution. In this case the Qajar Empire did not invade the embassy grounds to crush the dissidents. If it had done so, there would almost certainly have been a war. Serving and former British diplomats are not happy about the current mood in the foreign ministry, which is brandishing a littleknown law to remove the Ecuador embassy’s diplomatic status.
It was introduced in 1987 after the shooting of a British police officer outside the Libyan embassy in London.
Political immunity is something many countries have recognised and employed from time to time. The United States sheltered a Roman Catholic Cardinal, Joseph Mindszenty, in its embassy in Budapest for 15 years. The cardinal entered the embassy during the Hungarian uprising of 1956 and successfully sought asylum. Although the communist government didn’t like it, they understood diplomatic niceties which could affect their representatives too and refrained from sending police into the embassy to extract Mindszenty.
For the moment, things are in a stalemate as Assange sleeps on an air mattress in a modest room in the embassy. WikiLeaks says Assange will make a live statement in front of the Ecuadorian embassy tomorrow. It’s not yet clear whether he will risk arrest by leaving the building or will simply appear at a window or by a video link. In a statement posted on its Twitter page, Assange says Ecuador’s decision is “a historic victory... It was not Britain or my home country, Australia, that stood up to protect me from persecution, but a courageous, independent Latin American nation.”