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WikiLeaks founder Assange in legal limbo

Wik­iLeaks founder Julian Assange has been viewed as a con­tro­ver­sial legal figure for the past sev­eral years. He is cur­rently seeking refuge in Ecuador’s London embassy, which is shielding him from British extra­di­tion to Sweden, where he is under inves­ti­ga­tion for sexual assault. We asked Valen­tine Moghadam, the director of the inter­na­tional affairs pro­gram in the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties, to weigh in on the com­pli­cated case.

The British and Ecuadorean governments are at a standoff over the fate of Assange. Why would Ecuador be willing to go head-to-head with the United Kingdom over this issue?

It’s a matter of prin­ciple. Ecuador may be small and poor, but it has a demo­c­ratic polity and is run by a pro­gres­sive gov­ern­ment. Under inter­na­tional law, when an indi­vidual seeks polit­ical asylum from cred­ible fears of polit­ical per­se­cu­tion, asylum must be granted. In addi­tion, Assange, as the founder of Wik­iLeaks, has always argued for freedom of the press, open-​​source infor­ma­tion and gov­ern­ment trans­parency. Many gov­ern­ments — espe­cially those involved in wars, inva­sions and occu­pa­tions, cor­rup­tion or human-​​rights vio­la­tions — take rather a dif­ferent view.

In my view, Ecuador has behaved in a rea­soned and rea­son­able manner, whereas the British gov­ern­ment appears provoca­tive and indeed aggres­sive by issuing threats to storm the embassy. Sim­i­larly, there have been very threat­ening state­ments issued here in the United States. Sen. Dianne Fein­stein, D-​​Calif., head of the Senate Select Com­mittee on Intel­li­gence, for example, has stated that Assange should be pros­e­cuted under the Espi­onage Act. An impor­tant point, too, is that there is con­sid­er­able sup­port in both Ecuador and Britain for the work that Julian Assange began with Wik­iLeaks, in addi­tion to oppo­si­tion to the British government’s deci­sion to extra­dite Assange to Sweden for questioning.

Both Assange and Ecuadorean officials have expressed concerns that British police would storm the embassy to arrest the WikiLeaks founder. What are the laws that govern diplomatic outposts like embassies and how do they apply to this case?

Embassies are meant to be sacro­sanct — some­what like churches, one might say — and their invi­o­la­bility is an impor­tant aspect of diplo­matic rela­tions. When in late November 2011, Iranian men protesting sanc­tions stormed the British embassy in Tehran, this was con­sid­ered a major diplo­matic breach, even if the Iranian gov­ern­ment claimed that it had not been behind the attack. Britain cannot have it both ways by crit­i­cizing Iran for the attack on its embassy in Tehran and threat­ening to storm the embassy of Ecuador in London.

The UK may be standing on a national law it passed fol­lowing the events of 1984, when a Libyan embassy staff member fired a gun at pro­tes­tors out­side the embassy, killing a British police­woman, but this case is dif­ferent. No one is shooting from within the Ecuadorean embassy; instead, polit­ical asylum is being granted to someone with a cred­ible fear of polit­ical per­se­cu­tion. In any event, under inter­na­tional law, and in diplo­matic prac­tice, embassies are never to be attacked.

Assange says his arrest would lead to prosecution in the United States over the fact that WikiLeaks has published classified documents illegally obtained from the American government. Do you think this is a realistic possibility?

I believe that it is. Assange and Wik­iLeaks were respon­sible for the release in 2010 and 2011 of thou­sands of U.S. diplo­matic cables that revealed malfea­sance in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and indeed infor­ma­tion on actions that sug­gest war crimes. Other cables showed cor­rup­tion on the part of var­ious gov­ern­ments and their ruling fam­i­lies. Five major news­pa­pers saw fit to pub­lish the infor­ma­tion. For some observers, the release of the cables — as well as the “Col­lat­eral Murder” footage of the appar­ently indis­crim­i­nate killing of Iraqi civil­ians by a U.S. heli­copter — was a brave and nec­es­sary act, sim­ilar to Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pen­tagon Papers in 1971. For others, this was illegal and dan­gerous, as well as hugely embarrassing.

For this reason, the tenor of U.S. crit­i­cism of Assange has been quite harsh, and there is evi­dence that a secret grand jury, called by the U.S. Jus­tice Depart­ment, has been inves­ti­gating Assange. In addi­tion, Wik­iLeaks has been sub­ject to a serious finan­cial blockade, making the con­tin­u­a­tion of its work almost impos­sible. It should be noted that Assange has not been charged with any crime in Sweden; instead, the Swedish author­i­ties issued an arrest war­rant for ques­tioning in con­nec­tion with two alle­ga­tions of sexual mis­con­duct. Such alle­ga­tions are very serious, espe­cially to a fem­i­nist such as myself, even though the timing of the alle­ga­tions does raise ques­tions, coming as it did after the Wik­iLeaks release of the U.S. diplo­matic cables.

Assange cer­tainly needs to answer to the sexual-​​assault alle­ga­tions, but there are real risks involved, espe­cially the risk of extra­di­tion to the U.S., where Assange could face the fate of Bradley Man­ning (the young Amer­ican sol­dier who for­warded the cables to Wik­iLeaks) or worse. Assange has offered to travel to Sweden if there are assur­ances that the Swedish author­i­ties will not extra­dite him to the U.S.; they have refused his request. Nor have they agreed to his request that he be ques­tioned in London. So his fear of extra­di­tion and pros­e­cu­tion is entirely warranted.

– by Matt Collette

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