Why Assange's bid for Ecuador asylum may dismay supporters

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London Tuesday. Ecuador says it expects today to decided if it will grant his asylum request.

Tim Hales/AP
Police look on as demonstrators protest outside the Ecuadorian embassy, London, Wednesday June 20, 2012. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange entered the embassy Tuesday in an attempt to gain political asylum. Ecuador said Assange would "remain at the embassy, under the protection of the Ecuadorean government" while authorities in the capital, Quito, considered his case.

As many questions as answers surrounded Julian Assange’s continued sojourn at the Ecuadorian embassy in London Thursday morning, as the Australian founder of WikiLeaks awaited Ecuador’s response to his plea for asylum.

Mr. Assange’s decision Tuesday to seek refuge at the small embassy across the road from Harrods department store in Knightsbridge, central London, has caused widespread bewilderment, especially among his supporters, several of whom stumped up cash for his £240,000 ($375,000) bail – money they may now lose.

Assange, whose WikiLeaks website caused a furor when it published secret US diplomatic cables in conjunction with some of the world’s most respected newspapers in 2010, is trying to avoid extradition to Sweden, where authorities want to question him over alleged sex crimes. He claims that Sweden could extradite him to the United States, where, he says, he could face criminal charges punishable by death.

The logic behind this is perplexing, say legal experts, because Britain has its own extradition agreements with the US which it has not used against Assange. Indeed, civil liberties groups are often critical of Britain's use of the agreements.

Could still be arrested

Even if Ecuador does grant Assange asylum, he is still likely to be arrested by British police for breaching his bail conditions. Diplomatic convention prevents British police from entering the embassy without authorization from Ecuador. But Assange cannot leave the embassy without treading on British soil on the way out, thus exposing himself to arrest.

“Various deranged theories have emerged, like, Ecuador could protect Assange by making him a diplomat,” said Matthew Happold, professor of public international law at the University of Luxembourg. “But no, it couldn’t, because Britain would not recognize that.”

“I have no idea why he’s done this,” he added. “I don’t think any lawyer who had researched this would have advised him to.”

Although Ecuador briefly offered Assange residency in 2010, it is thought to be unlikely to meet his request for asylum. Under Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — of which Ecuador is a signatory — countries don't give asylum to those accused of nonpolitical crimes.

Most observers conclude, therefore, that Assange’s dramatic bid is an act of desperation. Last month, Britain’s highest court upheld a ruling that his extradition to Sweden was legal. Last week, it rejected an attempt by him to reopen his appeal against extradition, saying it was “without merit.”

Assange has until June 28 to ask European judges in Strasbourg to consider his case and postpone extradition on the ground that he has not had a fair hearing from the British courts.

“If I were to speculate, I would say his legal advisers have told him Strasbourg wouldn’t stop him being extradited to Sweden,” said Mr. Happold. Some legal experts wonder if Assange is planning to bargain with Sweden for assurances they will not hand him over to the US.

Even supporters may be disenchanted

Meanwhile, Assange’s supporters are likely to have been disenchanted by his latest move. Besides jumping bail, Assange has aligned himself to a country that is no paragon of the values he has claimed to uphold himself, especially freedom of expression.

Its leftist President Rafael Correa has clashed with journalists since he took office in 2007, accusing a "media dictatorship" of undermining his rule. Opponents regularly accuse him of seeking to silence dissenting voices.

In an interview broadcast on Youtube on May 22, Assange expressed sympathy with Mr. Correa's war on media. And he is now relying on the diplomatic protocol that he disregarded in 2010 when he published confidential cables to protect him from serious charges. The lawyer representing his alleged victims has said they are dismayed by his efforts to evade justice.

But Juan Carlos Piedra, who heads the Ecuador in the United Kingdom Movement, a political organization that supports Correa, says that granting Assange asylum would be popular in Ecuador. “We support the decision to protect Assange,” he says. “I think 90 percent of Ecuadorians would agree.”

Beyond extradition or asylum, there is a third possible fate awaiting Assange. In 1956, Cardinal Joseph Mindszenty sought refuge in the US Embassy in Budapest. The Soviet-backed government refused the anticommunist cleric free passage to the airport and he stayed in the embassy for 15 years.

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