Julian Assange’s attempt to gain asylum in Ecuador is just the latest turn in one of the biggest media stories of our time. The WikiLeaks co-founder is currently in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, which issued this statement on June 19:
“This afternoon Mr Julian Assange arrived at the Ecuadorean embassy seeking political asylum from the Ecuadorean government. We have immediately passed his application on to the relevant department in Quito. While the department assesses Mr Assange’s application, Mr Assange will remain at the embassy, under the protection of the Ecuadorean government.”
This story goes back to 2010, which news junkies may come to remember as the year of WikiLeaks, Assange’s online whistle blowing machine.
|The midterm media players|
In April of that year, WikiLeaks released footage of 18 civilians in Iraq shot dead by troops on board a US helicopter, cockpit video the Pentagon had insisted was no longer in existence. A few months later, the site began posting hundreds of thousands of classified US government documents on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Then came the diplomatic cables, which provided an insider’s view of American diplomacy, and uncensored views of US diplomats on the countries they deal with.
It was also the year that Mr Assange began to be pursued by Swedish and, eventually, British authorities.
Assange has been accused of raping one woman and sexually assaulting another during a trip to deliver a lecture in Sweden in August 2010. He was arrested in London in December of that year, after a European arrest warrant was issued. After eight nights in prison, he was granted bail at $315,000. Since then he’s been under house arrest at, at least, two addresses in the UK.
Throughout his legal ordeal, Assange has maintained the sex was consensual and that he was being persecuted for reasons of politics. He also said he feared the Swedish authorities would simply hand him over to the Americans, who might already have a cell at Guantanamo with his name on it.
In February 2011, a British court ruled that Assange be extradited to Sweden. He has been embroiled in battles in the British courts ever since. In November last year, the High Court ruled that Assange’s extradition was not unfair or unlawful, and last week the country’s highest court backed that decision.
With his legal options in the UK exhausted, Mr Assange had one more appeal route open to him. He had until June 28th to file an appeal at the European court of human rights.
But instead he walked into the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, and requested political asylum.
Anti-American sentiments run high there. In April last year, Ecuador announced that it was expelling US ambassador Heather Hodges, over claims she made in diplomatic cables of widespread corruption within the Ecuadorean police force. The cables were written with the frankness that comes when the author believes their work is confidential. But they were released to the world via Wikileaks.
The country’s deputy foreign minister first raised the prospect of sheltering Assange in 2010, when American politicians were calling him an enemy of the state.
In mid-2011, I attended a WikiLeaks event at the stately manor house where Assange was under house arrest. Many people spoke that day, but I remember one in particular.
He was Ecuadorean, an official at the embassy in London. Of Assange, he said something along the lines of: “We Ecuadoreans always knew Washington did not approve of our president, the same way it does not approve of Hugo Chavez or other leftist leaders in Latin America. But we never knew the extent of American animosity or interference in our country’s affairs. WikiLeaks and the almost 1,500 diplomatic cables originating for the US embassy in Ecuador changed all that. They made the murky world of diplomacy crystal clear. Our country will always be grateful to Julian Assange. That is why I am here today, to support him and his organization.”
Last month, Assange interviewed President Rafael Correa on his talk show, which is broadcast on the state-funded Russian news channel, RTV. Correa happens to be locked into a Chavez-like struggle with Ecuadorean media, most of which is owned by right-wingers. He has attracted criticism for going too far in his response.
But the two men appeared to get on well during their 25 minute online chat. Assange described Correa as “a leftwing populist who has changed the face of Ecuador.”
Toward the end of their discussion, Correa told Assange: “Cheer up. Welcome to the club of the persecuted.”
That chummy exchange doesn’t quite square with the official tone of the statement from the government in Quito, the one about passing Assange’s asylum application to the relevant department.
Because Julian Assange is no stranger to the Ecuadorean government. He is no ordinary asylum seeker. They know who he is; what he’s done; how Wikileaks has affected Ecuador and other countries that live in the long, cold shadow of a superpower.
Assange is considered a renegade, but he’s no fool. I very much doubt that he would walk into that embassy without knowing precisely how his asylum application would turn out.
Incidentally, he saw this coming. When I interviewed Assange for The Listening Post, in November 2010, we talked about the legal net closing in on him. I asked where he saw himself living in five years.
Assange replied, “Well, I joked the other night. The way things are going, what do I do? Apply for refugee status in Cuba?”
Right neighbourhood; wrong country.
He might even be able to see Guantanamo from the plane. Although it would be unwise of him, at this stage, to fly through American airspace.
Richard Gizbert is the presenter of Al Jazeera’s Listening Post.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.