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The Meaning of Assange’s Asylum

Quito, Ecuador.

The impact of Ecuador’s decision to grant political asylum  to Julian Assange is still quite tangible internationally, a rarity in a world where no one remembers yesterday’s news.

Even hours before it was announced, Ecuador’s decision to grant asylum to Assange because of the lack of international guarantees of due process of law for the founder of Wikileaks, had the effect of generating an overreaction by the government of Great Britain, which bypassed diplomatic law and threatened to storm the embassy of Ecuador in London to arrest Assange. This aggressive outburst by Britain against Latin America made in the long shadow of the Falklands invasion was immediately labeled as colonialism. It has been a catalyst to unite all countries of the region around Ecuador.

The government of President Rafael Correa has received the backing of the two most powerful Latin American organizations, ALBA and UNASUR. In at least one of these institutions are Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Peru, as well as other countries in the region. In advance of scheduled meetings of both organizations this weekend in Guayaquil to generate a statement of solidarity with Ecuador, several foreign ministers in Latin America have already expressed their opposition to Britain’s threat to enter the embassy of Ecuador by force.

The U.S. State Department said that the United States “does not recognize the concept of asylum as part of international law” because the U.S. not a signatory to the Convention on Diplomatic Asylum of 1954. They added that this is not a matter that should involve the OAS, although almost all of the other OAS member countries think otherwise and voted  to convene an emergency session.

The US stated yet again that it will not intervene in the case of Julian Assange. Yet, the US government’s repetition of “we are not involved” fails to convince. Too many statements by U.S. lawmakers and officials denouncing WikiLeaks and threatening Assange with imprisonment for life and even the death penalty have been widely disseminated in the world press. The fundamental reason that attorneys for Julian Assange believe their client cannot accept extradition to Sweden is because from there Assange will be almost certainly delivered to the U.S. That the U.S. has initiated a secret grand jury proceeding to indict Assange for crimes including espionage and treason is not mere speculation.

According to Assange’s lawyer, Michael Ratner, President Emeritus of the internationally recognized Center for Constitutional Rights, a secret grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia, was convened to investigate violations of the Espionage Act, where the grand jury received testimony including Twitter messages related to Assange and WikiLeaks. An FBI agent who was a witness in the case of detained soldier Bradley Manning has stated  that the “founders, owners and managers” WikiLeaks were under investigation. Ratner also noted that the FBI has compiled a dossier of 42,135 pages pertaining to Assange.

In this context, Assange’s fears of being extradited, imprisoned and deprived of any right to a fair defense in the U.S. should be considered well-founded and reasonable. And in the same way, the decision to grant asylum by Ecuador should be considered a humanitarian decision viewed within the legal framework of international law governed by the Vienna Convention.

From this context, there arises a unique situation in which a Latin American country now stands as a defender of the human rights of an individual against the will of two European countries, Britain and Sweden, who refuse to give assurances that Assange will not be extradited to the United States. What irony that a small nation which until recently was considered a mere “banana republic” today openly protects a major world icon of freedom of expression from persecution by United States and its allies.

Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa’s grant of political asylum to Assange has opened an international front opposing the ethical/moral paradigm of Britain and the United States. His decision has created some startling opposition in the north. Many still do not believe what they have heard.

Similarly Correa’s domestic opposition has yet to assimilate this sovereign declaration which stands in opposition to the  largest trading partner of Ecuador, the United States. Businessmen and some former foreign ministers and other figures have made the usual statements to The Guardian, The Economist, and Ecuador’s El Comercio, warning of risks to Ecuador for opposing the designs of Europe and America.

So far more than two days after the asylum announcement, these views have been overshadowed by the support generated for the decision and in protest of Britain’s extreme reaction. This was demonstrated in the special session of the Ecuadorian National Assembly. With 73 votes in favor, 7 abstentions and no votes against, Ecuador’s Parliament overwhelmingly endorsed the decision of the President to grant asylum to the creator of WikiLeaks and strongly denounced the British threat to forcibly enter the embassy as a violation of Ecuador’s sovereignty.

On the streets of Quito, the common denominator has been the proverbial caution. At first sight, neither enthusiasm for or opposition to the grant of asylum to Assange could be perceived.  However, everyone seems to be carefully following reports of international reaction. On the radio, on television and in print, there are detailed reports of the reactions of every international government and political institution. People listen attentively, as though it is hard for them to believe that their government has created such an international stir. And that this was not caused by the price of oil or bananas or drug trafficking in neighboring Colombia. Some have abandoned their reserve and openly demonstrate their pride as citizens of a sovereign nation. Others still remain cautiously silent.

Silvia Arana is a former Argentine political prisoner, activist and writer now living in Ecuador. 
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