Asylum for Assange compelled by U.S. human rights abuses

Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

In its decision to grant political asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the Ecuadorian government included a remarkable – and largely overlooked – rebuke of the U.S. justice system.

Judging that Assange’s fears of persecution by the United States are real and would be exacerbated were he to be extradited by the United Kingdom to Sweden in relation to allegations of sexual misconduct, Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño Aroca said on Thursday that “there are serious indications of retaliation by the country or countries [the United States] that produced the information disclosed by Mr. Assange, retaliation that can put at risk his safety, integrity and even his life.”

While criticizing Sweden for its prosecution of Assange which has prevented him “the total exercise of the legitimate right to defense,” Ecuador’s primary concern was clearly the possibility that Sweden would hand him over to the United States.

“The judicial evidence shows clearly that, given an extradition to the United States, Mr. Assange would not have a fair trial, he could be judged by a special or military court, and it is not unlikely that he would receive a cruel and demeaning treatment and he would be condemned to a life sentence or the death penalty, which would not respect his human rights,” Ecuador stated.

The U.S.’s history of human rights violations, particularly in relation to the decade-long war on terror and its ongoing abuse of alleged whistleblower Bradley Manning, was clearly on the minds of the Ecuadorian authorities when they made the decision to grant Assange’s asylum request.

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa explained his decision Friday saying,

It is not that I agree with everything that Julian Assange has done, but does he deserve the death penalty, life imprisonment, to be extradited to a third country for this? Please, what’s the balance between the crime and the punishment, the offense and the punishment? What about due process?

Before making the decision to grant Assange asylum, Ecuador had said that it would allow the extradition to Sweden on the condition that Swedish authorities give assurances they would not extradite him to the United States. Ecuador had further offered Swedish prosecutors the opportunity to question Assange over the sexual misconduct allegations inside the Ecuadorian embassy.

Since Sweden refused to guarantee that it would not extradite Assange to the U.S. and turned down the offer to meet with him in the embassy, Ecuador was left with few options and ultimately chose to protect Assange from persecution and possible human rights abuses by U.S. authorities.

As Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, pointed out,

Correa didn’t want this mess and it has been a lose-lose situation for him from the beginning. He has suffered increased tension with three countries that are diplomatically important to Ecuador – the US, UK and Sweden. The US is Ecuador’s largest trading partner and has several times threatened to cut off trade preferences that support thousands of Ecuadorian jobs.

Even facing the likelihood of diplomatic retaliation by the United States, Ecuador decided that safeguarding human rights was of paramount importance in this case.

Ecuador agreed with Assange that he will likely be prosecuted for espionage by the United States, considering unmistakable signs that the U.S. is on track to prosecute Assange for his work as a journalist. A grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia, has subpoenaed Twitter feeds regarding Assange and WikiLeaks and in testimony at a pre-trial hearing of prisoner of conscience Bradley Manning, an FBI agent acknowledged that “founders, owners and managers” of WikiLeaks are being investigated.

Were Assange to be extradited to the U.S., there is reason to believe he would receive even worse treatment than Manning, with prominent political figures ranging from radio host Rush Limbaugh to Vice President Joe Biden referring to him as a terrorist, and indicating that he should be killed for what he’s done in exposing U.S. war crimes and embarrassing state secrets.

An indictment is already prepared pending his arrival on U.S. soil, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has recommended that the death penalty be sought in his potential trial. There is also concern over a prejudicial environment he would face in a U.S. trial.

As WikiLeaks lawyer Michael Ratner put it,

Assange is rightly concerned about how he will be treated if he is extradited to the US. One need only consider how the US treated Bradley Manning, the army private who allegedly leaked the cables to WikiLeaks to see why. Manning spent close to a year in pre-trial solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, and then eight months under conditions designed to pressure him into providing evidence to incriminate Assange. During this time, Manning was stripped of his clothing and made to stand nude for inspection. Thousands of people, including scores of legal scholars and the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, have condemned Manning’s treatment as inhumane, and state that it may constitute torture. There is no reason for Assange to expect he will be treated any better.

The United States, officially, is maintaining an air of neutrality in the ongoing Assange saga. “This is an issue between the Ecuadorans, the Brits, the Swedes,” said State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland. “I don’t have anything particular to add.”

Nuland rejected suggestions that the United States is pushing Britain to enter the Ecuadoran Embassy to remove the WikiLeaks founder. “My information is that we have not involved ourselves in this,” she said.

Former British ambassador Craig Murray, however, reported on his website that he has “private confirmation from within the FCO,” the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, that the Obama administration is exerting “immense pressure” on the British government to enter the Ecuadorian Embassy and seize Julian Assange.

Murray points out that such an action would be “beyond any argument, a blatant breach of the Vienna Convention of 1961, to which the UK is one of the original parties and which encodes the centuries – arguably millennia – of practice which have enabled diplomatic relations to function.”

“The Vienna Convention is the most subscribed single international treaty in the world,” Murray notes.

In a way, seizing Assange in violation of the Vienna Convention would bring the whole WikiLeaks Cablegate scandal full circle. One of WikiLeaks’ major revelations in 2010 when it published thousands of classified U.S. State Department cables was that the United States had been routinely violating the Vienna Convention by committing espionage against UN officials.

As the Guardian reported on Nov. 28, 2010:

Washington is running a secret intelligence campaign targeted at the leadership of the United Nations, including the secretary general, Ban Ki-moon and the permanent security council representatives from China, Russia, France and the UK.

A classified directive which appears to blur the line between diplomacy and spying was issued to US diplomats under Hillary Clinton’s name in July 2009, demanding forensic technical details about the communications systems used by top UN officials, including passwords and personal encryption keys used in private and commercial networks for official communications.

It called for detailed biometric information “on key UN officials, to include undersecretaries, heads of specialised agencies and their chief advisers, top SYG [secretary general] aides, heads of peace operations and political field missions, including force commanders” as well as intelligence on Ban’s “management and decision-making style and his influence on the secretariat”.

The UN has complained that U.S. spying on the secretary general is illegal, citing the 1946 UN Convention on privileges and immunities which states: “The premises of the United Nations shall be inviolable. The property and assets of the United Nations, wherever located and by whomsoever held, shall be immune from search, requisition, confiscation, expropriation and any other form of interference, whether by executive, administrative, judicial or legislative action”.

The 1961 Vienna Convention, which covers the UN, also states that “the official correspondence of the mission shall be inviolable.”

It was partially in response to these embarrassing revelations that the United States launched an aggressive counterattack on WikiLeaks – pressuring Visa, Mastercard and Paypal to impose a financial blockade on the anti-secrecy website, detaining alleged whistleblower Bradley Manning for more than 800 days in pre-trial confinement in violation of international law, and hatching a secret indictment against Julian Assange for alleged “espionage” against the United States.

“All of the evidence that is coming out of what we know about the Grand Jury and what is coming out of the Bradley Manning proceedings – confirm that there is, as the Australian government has been reported, by our own embassy in Washington, a criminal investigation of unprecedented size and scale,” says WikiLeaks lawyer Jennifer Robinson.

But ironically the United States’ own overreaching in its reaction has led directly to the granting of asylum for Assange in Ecuador. In its outrageous mistreatment of Bradley Manning, its lack of transparency in its judicial proceedings against Assange, and in the bellicose calls for Assange’s death by prominent U.S. political figures, the United States has hastened this unprecedented situation in which an award-winning journalist is granted asylum in order to protect him from persecution by the U.S. government.

Of course, this saga is far from over, and considering how aggressively the United States has gone after WikiLeaks so far – in blatant disregard for international norms – there is no guarantee that it will respect Assange’s status of diplomatic asylum or the sovereign right of Ecuador to grant that asylum.

“The United States is not a party to the 1954 OAS Convention on Diplomatic Asylum and does not recognize the concept of diplomatic asylum as a matter of international law,” the State Department said in a statement.

The Center for Constitutional Rights, which is providing legal representation to WikiLeaks and Assange, said however that “granting asylum is a humanitarian act and the UN General Assembly has unanimously declared that it should not be construed as unfriendly by other countries.”

“The U.S., Sweden and the U.K. have adopted and reiterated this very principle many times,” CCR pointed out. “It is imperative, therefore, that no diplomatic consequences should befall Ecuador over this decision.”

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