Since June 2012 Julian Assange has been holed up in Ecuador’s Embassy in London. In a recent post, I articulated why “we need” Julian Assange. In this post, I have excerpted directly from Assange’s website, which answers questions that many in public may entertain about who this man is and why he has commanded international scorn or devotion.
I believe that people of faith, people of conscience, and most importantly, journalists, need to do their best to understand Assange’s predicament.
Who is Julian Assange?
Julian Assange is an Australian journalist and publisher. He is the founder and editor of WikiLeaks, a public-interest publication designed to provide a safe conduit for whistleblowers all over the world to expose secret wrongdoing, regardless of political ideology or allegiance. Assange’s publishing and journalistic work is widely recognized: he is the recipient of the 2009 Amnesty International New Media Award, the 2010 Martha Gellhorn Prize, the 2011 Sydney Peace Foundation Gold Medal, the 2011 Walkley Award for Journalism and the 2013 Yoko Ono Lennon Courage Award in the Arts.
He is also a refugee, living under the diplomatic protection of the government of Ecuador, in the embassy of Ecuador in London. He is beinginvestigated for espionage by authorities in the United States. The UK authorities also want him, and have surrounded the embassy with police. And the Swedish authorities want him too.
Why was he granted asylum? Why is the US pursuing him?
In 2010 Julian Assange oversaw the analysis and publication of over half a million documents from the Pentagon and US State Department; the largest such publication in history. He coordinated the analysis of the documents by 110 different media and human rights groups. The documents revealed thousands of issues embarrassing to the United States government, including the precise details about the deaths of more than 100,000 individual people in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In reprisal, the US government initiated a criminal investigation, targeting Assange and his staff at WikiLeaks with espionage charges. That investigation is being carried out by a federal grand jury – a prosecutorial mechanism that virtually assures that he will be indicted. The investigation is ongoing.
There is also a concurrent investigation into the WikiLeaks 2012 publication of “The Global Intelligence Files” : five million documents from the US intelligence contractor, Stratfor.
These are the threats against which he has been granted asylum by the government of Ecuador, which has asserted:
[T]he Government of Ecuador believes that these arguments lend support to the fears of Julian Assange, and it believes that he may become a victim of political persecution, as a result of his dedicated defence of freedom of expression and freedom of press as well as his repudiation of the abuses of power in certain countries, and that these facts suggest that Mr. Assange could at any moment find himself in a situation likely to endanger life, safety or personal integrity.
But why is Assange sought by the UK authorities?
The UK government officially intends to arrest Assange and extradite him to Sweden, in accordance with the orders of a UK court. The extradition order came at the end of a lengthy court battle in the UK, when Assange was challenging an extradition request from the Swedish authorities.
After Assange entered Ecuador’s embassy on the 19th June 2012, the London Metropolitan Police force surrounded the building, and have remained there ever since, at a cost to the UK taxpayer that had reached almost £3m by mid-February 2013. Shortly before he was granted asylum, the UK government threatened to violate the Vienna Conventions, removing the embassy’s diplomatic status, and initiating a police invasion of the premises in order to apprehend Assange. After this was internationally condemned, the UK government withdrew its threat, and resigned itself to respecting the inviolability of Ecuador’s diplomatic premises. The embassy remains surrounded by the London Metropolitan Police force.
So why is Assange sought by the Swedish authorities?
In 2010, a separate investigation was initiated by Swedish prosecutors in connection with allegations of sexual misconduct in Sweden. Assange is sought by the Swedish prosecutor in order to be questioned in this investigation. He has not been charged. He has made every attempt to cooperate short of those which would increase his risk of extradition to the United States. The prosecutor issued an extradition request in order to question him, despite the availability of alternatives.
Why didn’t he go to Sweden?
On the basis that, without adequate safeguards, extradition to Sweden would render him vulnerable to further transit to the United States, Assange fought the extradition in the English courts, over the course of two years, during which he lived under house arrest in the United Kingdom.
It should be stressed that Julian Assange’s court cases in the UK were on the bureaucratic matter of whether the extradition order, or European Arrest Warrant, was valid. They were not on the substance of the allegations against Julian Assange. He has not been charged with any crime, much less convicted of anything.
In June 2012, Assange lost the extradition case at the final court of appeal. He was given two weeks’ leave to seek an injunction against his extradition from the European Court of Human Rights. The Swedish prosecutor announced that he would be imprisoned on remand without bail.
Why did he seek asylum when he did?
After an almost immediate attempt by the Swedish and British authorities to curtail his leave, he was faced with the prospect of indefinite pretrial imprisonment in Swedish custody, with no further opportunities to seek asylum. He therefore chose to avail of his right under international law to seek asylum. Although he had scrupulously observed oppressive bail conditions while living under house arrest in the UK for two years, he was required to ignore them in order to avail of his superior right under international law to seek asylum.
He entered the embassy of Ecuador on the 19th of June 2012 and sought asylum from the government of Ecuador, fearing persecution by the United States government. The building was immediately surrounded by police.
On the 16th of August 2012 after a formal investigation of his asylum claim the Ecuadorian government announced that Julian Assange’s fear of persecution from the United States was well-founded, and granted him political and diplomatic asylum from the United States.
Ecuador has made offers to the Swedish government to facilitate an interview on its premises, as part of good faith efforts to safely facilitate Swedish due process while at the same time protecting Assange from the United States. The Swedish government has refused.
The situation is at an impasse. Ecuador is bound by international law to safeguard Assange’s rights, and cannot allow his transit to Sweden without adequate safeguards against the US threat. Sweden has refused to provide safeguards, or make compromises, ostensibly to maintain “prestige.” The UK authorities are prevented from entering the embassy by the Vienna Conventions, but refuse negotiations to provide Assange with safe passage to Ecuador. Assange remains beyond their reach, in the embassy.