Asylum & stand-off

Print edition : September 21, 2012

Ecuador stands firm on the grant of asylum to Julian Assange despite Britains explicit threat to strip its embassy of diplomatic status.

in London

Julian Assange prepares to address his supporters from the balcony of Ecuador's embassy in London on August 19.-CHRIS HELGREN/REUTERS

A RED-BRICK Victorian building overlooking the rear entrance of the luxury store Harrods in a quiet backstreet, off Knightsbridge in central London, has been thrust into an international diplomatic row which, according to British Foreign Secretary William Hague, could drag on for some considerable time. It is on the ground floor of this building, whose occupants include a clutch of minor Saudi royalty, that Ecuadors tiny London embassy and home to WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange for the past two months is located.

Number 3 Hans Crescent, which people previously passed by without as much as noticing it, has become the hottest spot in town for the world media and free speech campaigners since Assange sought refuge there to escape extradition to Sweden over sexual assault allegations. Tourists, previously not known to stray beyond Harrods, now flock to the suddenly famous building and are seen taking photographs.

When Assange walked into that building on June 22 to claim asylum a move that took his own friends by surprise few thought he would still be there two months later, holed up in a small room cut off from the outside world with cops waiting to arrest him for breaching his bail conditions if he stepped out.

At the time of writing (August 24), it is more than a week since Ecuador, in a high-wire political act, granted asylum to Assange defying a threat from the British government to strip its embassy of its diplomatic status and even storm it to seize him.

We are not a British colony, retorted Ecuadors combative Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino announcing the decision which, he said, was prompted by a concern for Assanges human rights as his government believed that his fears of political persecution were legitimate.

Echoing Assanges claim that if extradited to Sweden he could be handed to the American government, which wants to prosecute him for publishing secret official documents, Patino said: We believe that his fears are legitimate and there are threats that he could face political persecution. The Ecuador government, loyal to its tradition to protect those who seek refuge with us at our diplomatic missions, has decided to grant diplomatic asylum to Mr Assange.

The announcement did not come as a surprise. Such a decision was expected as it was at President Rafael Vicente Corrreas instigation (Cheer up. Welcome to the club of the persecuted, he told WikiLeaks chief during a television interview) that Assange took the plunge. It is widely assumed that when he walked into the Ecuadorean embassy in Knightsbridge they knew he was coming. That it took the Ecuadorean government two months to grant him asylum was simply part of diplomatic choreography, observers say.

The British threat made things easier for Quito. For no self-respecting sovereign country could be seen to be buckling under pressure. Within hours of the British move, the asylum was granted. The threat also allowed Ecuador to indulge in some grandstanding and rally other South American countries under the banner of anti-imperialism, portraying its row with Britain as a David versus Goliath fight: a former colonial power and an ally of imperialist America trying to intimidate a small South American nation.

Ecuador wants Britain to publicly retract what it insists was an explicit threat to storm its London embassy to arrest Assange.

We dont expect an apology, but of course we expect Britain to retract the extremely serious mistake they made when they issued the threat that they could violate our diplomatic mission to arrest Mr Julian Assange, President Correa said.

ECUADOREAN PRESIDENT RAFAEL Correa during a broadcast to the nation, at the Carondelet government palace in Quito on August 24.-

Britain, of course, denies issuing any threat and claims that all it did was to acquaint Ecuador with a domestic law that allows it to revoke the diplomatic status of a foreign mission under certain circumstances. Whether or not it was meant as a serious threat, the tone of a note it sent to Ecuador on August 15 clearly had a touch of muscle-flexing.

The note warned that Britain had legal basis under the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act to take actions in order to arrest Mr Assange in the current premises of the embassy.

We very much hope not to get to this point [revoking diplomatic status], but if you cannot resolve the issue of Mr Assanges presence on your premises, this route is open to us, it said.

The Act, which has never been invoked before and is so obscure that many even in British diplomatic circles are not aware of its existence, was introduced after a British policewoman was killed by a shot fired by someone from inside the Libyan embassy in London in 1984.

In his famous balcony address to his supporters on August 19, Assange suggested that the British police desisted from storming the embassy only because the world was watching. He recalled how the police descended on this building the day he was granted asylum.

Inside this embassy in the dark, I could hear teams of police swarming up inside the building through its internal fire escape. But I knew there would be witnesses, and that is because of you, he said.

Even those who disagree with Ecuadors decision and support Assanges extradition have attacked the British move, describing it variously as foolish, as an overreaction, and as setting a dangerous precedent.

Sir Tony Brenton, a former British Ambassador to Moscow, warned that revoking Ecuadors diplomatic status arbitrarily would make life impossible for British diplomats in other countries.

I think the Foreign Office have slightly overreached themselves here, for both practical and legal reasons. The government itself has no interest in creating a situation where it is possible for governments everywhere to arbitrarily cut off diplomatic immunity. It would be very bad, he told the BBC, pointing out that it would make British missions abroad insecure.

If the Russians had had the power and simply walked into the embassy and simply arrested someone, we would have been in much more insecurity, Sir Tony said, alluding to a series of diplomatic rows between London and Moscow during his posting in Russia between 2004 and 2008.

Legal experts point out that the Act was specifically designed to stop acts of terrorism or other breaches of international law within a foreign embassy, which Ecuador is not guilty of. They have warned that Britain would be in breach of the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations if it sent the police into a foreign embassy.

The British action has spawned jokes about how with enemies like Britain, Assange doesnt need friends. Britain insists that it has no plans to send the police into the embassy and is committed to a negotiated solution but draws a line at allowing him safe passage to Ecuador, arguing that it is under obligation to extradite Assange to Sweden as he has exhausted all legal options.

We shall carry out that obligation. The Ecuadorean governments decision does not change that. We remain committed to a negotiated solution that allows us to carry out our obligations under the Extradition Act, said the Foreign Office.

Assanges lawyer Baltasar Garzon has said that he could appeal to the International Court of Justice at The Hague if Britain continues to refuse him safe passage to Ecuador a move also hinted at by the Ecuadorean government. As the diplomatic stand-off continues, there is speculation that as a last resort Ecuador could give Assange diplomatic status, which would allow him to leave the embassy without risking arrest. Wilder suggestions include smuggling him out of the embassy in a diplomatic bag.

SUPPORTERS OF ASSANGE and mediapersons gather outside the Ecuadorean embassy in London to hear his August 19 address.-

In all the drama surrounding the case, there is a sense that the main issue has been overshadowed namely, that his extradition is being sought because of allegations of sexual misconduct brought against him by two Swedish women, referred to as Miss A and Miss W, and not because of his work for WikiLeaks. Their lawyer has accused Assanges supporters of overlooking their ordeal.

Critics say that Assange and his admirers have conflated two very different issues: his troubles with America over his WikiLeaks work, and the specific allegations of sexual assault against him. As The Guardian pointed out: Miss A and Miss W are at the heart of this story, however inconvenient it may be for Mr Assanges supporters to elide them.

Womens groups have accused Assanges sympathisers of sexism after some of them made remarks suggesting that he had been a victim of a honey trap set up by his detractors.

Questions have also been raised about Assanges choice of Ecuador for asylum given its none-too-flattering record on press freedom and human rights.

Meanwhile, he is said to be bored and restive after having been stuck indoors for such a long time and with no hope of an early release from his self-imposed confinement. He is allowed visitors and has access to television and computer, but the pressure of being isolated from the outside world has started to tell, according to people who have met him.

His mother, Christine Assange, has said she is worried about his health, as I would be for anybody who is having to stay indoors and not get exercise and sunlight.

In a sign that Assange may not be going anywhere anytime soon, his room has been made more comfortable and reportedly fitted with a treadmill, a microwave and a shower. President Correa has said he is welcome to stay there indefinitely and an Ecuadorean official, improving upon that invitation, told The Guardian that he could stay there for as long as he wanted; even two centuries, if necessary. There is the precedent of a Hungarian priest who stayed in the American embassy in Budapest for nearly 15 years following the anti-communist protests in Hungary in 1956. But two centuries?

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