Assange asylum case ripples through Latin America

Ecuador's decision to grant asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange could have an impact on extradition cases throughout Latin America.

Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP
In this February file photo, Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks speaks at a press conference in London.

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, The views expressed are the author's own.

Ecuador has called for every acronym in the hemisphere (OAS, UNASUR, ALBA, UN, etc.) to hold immediate meetings regarding the Julian Assange asylum case and the issue of its embassy in the UK.
 Leaving aside the specifics of that case for a moment, one of the secondary consequences of this event is that it could bring up questions about a whole host of other recent high profile political asylum, embassy refuge, and extradition cases around the hemisphere that have occasionally impacted bilateral relations.
 Some examples from the past five years (all very much simplified; the details in all these cases are quite complicated):

  • Manual Rosales, the presidential candidate for the Venezuelan opposition in 2006, was granted asylum in Peru after the Venezuelan government brought corruption charges against him.
  • Peru has also granted asylum to a number of former Bolivian government ministers who are wanted by that government.
  • Former Bolivian President Goni Sanchez de Lozada is still living free in the US, in spite of Bolivia's extradition requests.
  • Venezuela is still deciding about Julian Conrado. The Colombian government wants Conrado extradited from Venezuela due to his links with the FARC and involvement in crimes and terrorism. Conrado's supporters say he's just a journalist and musician who sympathizes with the group.
  • Former Peruvian President Fujimori tried to hide in Chile, but was eventually extradited to Peru to be tried for his crimes.
  • Nicaragua granted political asylum to Alberto Pizango, the Peruvian indigenous leader who was wanted by the government for his role during the Bagua conflict. After he was given asylum, the government granted him safe passage from the Nicaragua embassy out of the country. He returned to Peru 11 months later and was arrested.
  • Former Honduran President Zelaya hid in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa for months during the 2009 coup. Brazil never officially granted him asylum, but did allow him to remain in the embassy for several months until the government of President Lobo took office.

Perhaps the biggest impact of the Assange debate could be on an ongoing political asylum case in Bolivia. Senator Roger Pinto has been living in the Brazilian embassy in La Paz for 80 days, having been granted asylum by Brazil but not offered safe passage by Bolivia. The Bolivian government wants to try him on various corruption charges. Pinto says it is a political persecution related to his revealing information about ties between the government and drug traffickers (the fact he's a target for having revealed information about the government makes the parallels even more significant). He also has produced evidence that he has received credible death threats.
 For ALBA (The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America) to credibly argue that the UK must offer safe passage to Assange, Bolivia should relent and offer safe passage to Pinto. Brazil could make this a condition at UNASUR (The Union of South American Nations) in exchange for its support of Ecuador. It's a case to watch, a sideshow in the bigger process that's being watched internationally.
 In every instance, you'll hear, "But this case is different because...." Yes, yes, every asylum case is different. Yet, there are similarities. In every case, one side claims there have been various crimes committed that must be prosecuted while the other claims political persecution. Balancing justice for crimes against potential abuse of power by governments is tough. Sure, we all think we know it when we see it when it comes to asylum cases, but many people disagree about the cases listed above and others.
 It would be good for the hemisphere to have the broader debate about political asylum. When should it be allowed, when should it be denied, on what evidence do we differentiate the cases, and what happens when countries disagree about a specific case?

--- James Bosworth  is a freelance writer and consultant who runs Bloggings by Boz.

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