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Julian Assange: Wikileaks founder's fate a major international crisis

Simeon TegelGlobalPost.com

QUITO, Ecuador—Julian Assange’s supporters have upped the ante against Great Britain in their battle to prevent his arrest and extradition to Sweden for questioning over alleged sex crimes.

In particular, the suggestion that British police might not even wait for the 41-year-old Australian to leave the Ecuadorean embassy in London to arrest him drew the ire of everyone from Vladimir Putin’s government in Moscow to opposition newspapers in Ecuador.

That warning from the British government, based on the UK’s 1987 Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act, has been characterized by the tiny South American nation as a threat to “storm” the embassy.

On Saturday, the foreign ministers of the left wing “Boliviarian Alliance of the Americas” (ALBA) met in the Ecuadorean city of Guayaquil to agree a unified response to London.

The ALBA members, including Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua, are expected to make a joint statement today. They are then due to meet with other South American foreign ministers this afternoon to discuss the case.

Assange’s supporters claim that the Swedish allegations are a smokescreen. They insist he faces extradition to the US for trial over WikiLeaks publishing of classified secrets, including regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The star Spanish former human rights prosecutor Baltasar Garzon, who now represents Assange, has threatened to sue Britain at the International Court of Justice if it does not allow the WikiLeaks founder to travel to Quito.

According to Garzon, who made worldwide headlines in the 1990s with his attempt put former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet on trial for crimes against humanity, Assange is entitled to safe passage under the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention.

That flies in the face of statements by British Foreign Secretary William Hague that “diplomatic asylum,” which requires safe passage from any consular premises—as opposed to “political asylum”—is a concept unrecognized by the UK.

According to legal experts, diplomatic asylum only exists in Latin America. On Saturday, Hague received backing from an unexpected quarter on that point—the man who had granted asylum to Assange, Ecuador's President Rafael Correa.

In a radio interview, the populist left winger acknowledged that he had known that the concept of diplomatic asylum does not exist in the UK, effectively leaving Assange still holed up indefinitely in a tiny room in the embassy.

That raised the prospect that Correa had deliberately thrown down the gauntlet to Washington and London over what he understood was likely a symbolic gesture.

But in a typically defiant response, Correa claimed that the UK’s 1987 Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act was intended to deal with terrorists and using it against Assange would be an abuse.

He went on to warn that Ecuador would respond forcefully, adding: “They [the British government] don’t know who they are dealing with.”

In a further twist, Bolivia President Evo Morales was accused of hypocrisy for forcefully supporting Ecuador when his own government has refused to allow a prominent opposition leader holed up in the Brazilian embassy in La Paz safe passage out of Bolivia.

Roger Pinto, a right wing senator, has been granted asylum by Brazil after seeking refuge in the embassy three months ago from a series of corruption charges that he claims are politically motivated.

“There is an impressive coincidence between the government of President Morales and that of [British] Prime-minister Cameron,” Fabian Yacsik a Bolivian center-left opposition congressman, told Reuters. “It looks as though they have copied their arguments.”

And in two further signs that Assange’s fate was spinning into a major international crisis, Russia criticized the British government’s handling of the affair and the Organization of American States also agreed to meet on Friday to discuss the issue.

The OAS meeting was agreed after a 23 to three vote, with only the US, Canada, and Trinidad & Tobago opposing the organization being sucked into what they regard as a bilateral affair between London and Quito.

OAS General Secretary Jose Miguel Insulza said the organization would focus on the possibility that the British would enter the embassy rather than whether Ecuador was right to grant Assange asylum. “The issue that concerns us is the inviolability of diplomatic missions of all members of this organization,” he said.

In a statement, Russia questioned London’s handling of the affair, insisting the self-styled freedom of information champion was entitled to asylum and, by implication, safe passage to Ecuador.

Moscow appeared not to see the irony in adopting that position less than 24 hours after a Russian court had sentenced the girl-band Pussy Riot to two years in a penal colony for a “punk protest” against President Vladimir Putin that barely lasted 60 seconds.

But in Ecuador, the protestors outside the British embassy had vanished, and most locals appeared uninterested in the worldwide furor now focusing on the South American country.

Taxi-driver Xavier Olmos, 45, who praised Correa’s social programs, including his overhauling of the decrepit state education system and police, widely viewed as corrupt and inept, said: “It’s populism by Ecuador. We have made a big mistake and it will be Ecuador that suffers, if there are economic sanctions.”

“Correa is a good president, and this is one of the best governments that I have seen, but he is his own worst enemy. He has an explosive temper and doesn’t know when to back down.”

In an editorial, El Comercio, one of the nation’s leading newspapers, accused Correa of unnecessarily jeopardizing relations with the UK by “buying into someone else’s fight” and offering Assange refuge.

However, in a sign that even Correa’s domestic opponents might be rallying against London’s perceived affront to Ecuadorean sovereignty, the editorial described the prospect of British police entering the embassy as “unacceptable."