Thursday, June 21, 2012

Shooting the Messenger?

Julian Assange does a Chen Guangcheng in London

By Zafar Anjum

Remember the blind Chinese human rights advocate Chen Guangcheng, who escaped from house arrest on 22 April and sought sanctuary in the US embassy? Later on, the Chinese government gave him a safe passage to the US where he now lives and studies.

That was one month ago.

I was reminded of this incident when I learned about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange skipping bail en route from a court in London on Tuesday (19 June) and taking asylum in the embassy of Ecuador.

He has reportedly applied for asylum in that country. Interestingly, he had recently interviewed the President of Ecuador on his TV show for Russia TV. “Cheer up. Welcome to the club of the persecuted,” the Ecuador's leftist President Rafael Correa told Assange at the end of the interview.

In the same week that Chen escaped from house arrest in China, Julian Assange lost his court appeal against being extradited to Sweden for questioning about allegations of sexual offences.

Assange’s latest step is quite dramatic. It has caused a stir in diplomatic circles and freedom watchers are keenly following the developments.

Assange’s fear is that once he reaches Sweden, he will be deported to the US where he could face death penalty on charges of espionage. The US government has already issued a statement that they have no role to play in Assange’s case.

Meanwhile, Australia (of which Assange is a citizen) said that the country had made representations to the Swedish government on behalf of Assange. The country’s Foreign Minister Senator Carr said that ‘Australia could not fight his case for him on the sexual assault or anything else in another jurisdiction, nor could it for any other Australian’.

Looming arrest

It has been reported that President Correa has been impressed with Assange’s letter of appeal. AP reported that Julian Assange wants to continue his WikiLeaks work in Ecuador, according to a letter he sent to the country's president.

According to the report, President Rafael Correa said the country would take its time making a decision "because this is a very serious matter". Another report said that a swift decision is expected from his side (maybe within 24 hours).

But legal experts believe that even if Assange gets the asylum, he could be arrested on his way to the airport (to take a plane to Ecuador) for breaching bail.

There are other opinions too. This is what the Sydney Morning Herald (AAP) had to say: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s bold bid for asylum in Ecuador may well pay off, an Australian expert believes.

Australian National University international law expert Donald Rothwell says the bid could work, said the report. “He’s made a calculated judgment that on the basis of his interactions with the Ecuadorian government that he's fairly confident he will be granted asylum by this particular country,” Professor Rothwell told AAP.

“But ultimately whether Ecuador grants him asylum is a political judgment based on whatever arguments or evidence Mr Assange is able to put to support his case.”

‘Ecuadorian asylum would put him beyond the reach of Sweden and possibly also the US, Prof Rothwell says. Ecuador has an extradition treaty with the US, but it excludes those wanted on political charges.’

It remains to be seen how the drama will now unfold. Will Ecuador provide asylum to Assange? Even if he gets it, will the UK government give him a safe passage to the airport?

Given Assange’s astuteness and resourcefulness, even that is not far-fetched for him. His story might well be one of the greatest escapes of this century.

Though Assange’s critics say that he should not have jumped bail and should have faced the questioning by the Swedish government, his mother says that her son was left with no option but to seek political asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London’.

It would be interesting what Chen would have to say to Assange on this matter as ironically, the same land of freedom that Chen has chosen to escape to, is interested in getting hold of Assange and making him pay for the crime of exposing the greatest power on earth.

First published in MIS