Accused activist dodges UK police to claim asylum
Last week, Julian Assange’s final appeal against extradition to Sweden failed. The game seemed to be up – but now he has turned up at the Ecuadorian Embassy demanding refuge from the law.
British authorities have been left red-faced after Wikileaks founder Julian Assange escaped house arrest in London by claiming refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy.
Assange has been the sworn enemy of governments worldwide since 2010, when he leaked over 251,000 private diplomatic documents. American leaders, who were particularly embarrassed, furiously denounced him and demanded justice. But Assange’s story took a strange and apparently unrelated twist when two Swedish women accused him of rape.
Authorities in London, where Assange was living, began a lengthy legal struggle to deport him to Sweden, where he is due for trial. Last week his final appeal failed – Assange’s resistance seemed to be reaching its end.
Now, though, the drama has taken another unexpected twist: on Tuesday afternoon Assange walked into the Ecuadorian embassy, asking to be protected under the right of asylum. Without permission from the Ecuadorian ambassador, UK police cannot touch him: by international law, an embassy is strictly off limits.
Seeking refuge in embassies is a well-worn trick. Just two months ago, Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng escaped house arrest and fled to the US embassy in Beijing. After a diplomatic standoff, Chinese authorities allowed him to move to New York on a student visa.
In 1956 a rebellious priest fell foul of Hungary’s communist authorities, and turned up at the US embassy in Budapest. Fifteen years later, he was living there still.
These attempts to escape to the West are relatively common. Assange, more unusually, is trying to escape from it. And Ecuador, a reliable ally for America’s enemies, was a natural choice.
The USA has often interfered in the internal politics of its Latin American neighbours; now countries like Ecuador and Venezuela have responded by electing outspoken and ferociously anti-American leaders. Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa relishes every opportunity to thumb his nose at the West. This development will surely fill him with glee.
But even if Ecuador grants him asylum, Assange is unlikely to escape abroad. Police have warned that he will be arrested for breaching bail the moment he steps onto the street.
Haven or hell?
Assange’s prosecutors are furious. He is a suspect in a criminal case, and anybody who breaks the law in a country ought to pay the price. ‘How dare the Ecuadorians even consider giving him shelter?’ they demand.
But Assange’s supporters cry ‘hypocrisy!’ The West is perfectly happy to support the likes of Chen Guangcheng when he flees from the clutches of his country’s laws. But the right to asylum cuts both ways, they say: if we give foreign rebels shelter, we cannot complain when Ecuador does the same for Assange.
- Should foreign laws always be respected, even when they seem immoral?
- How important is the right to escape from a country whose authorities you disagree with?
- Imagine you are a fugitive on the run. Where would you go? Write a diary entry detailing your escape.
- Write the dialogue for an imaginary phone conversation between the leaders of Britain and Ecuador. The British prime minister is demanding that Assange be handed over to the police, while Ecuador’s president refuses.
Some People Say...
“If you break a law, you must face the consequences – even if the law is unjust.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- So anybody who commits a crime can just go hide in an embassy?
- Sort of – but it’s not likely to help very much. Most countries have ‘extradition treaties’ with one another: if someone wanted for murder in Australia is caught in France, they will be sent back home to face trial. Only if the fugitive has a strong case that they are in danger of serious physical harm or persecution can they apply for asylum – and even then their appeal usually fails.
- How could Assange possibly be under these threats?
- Assange’s supporters fear that if he is deported to Sweden, the Swedish government will send him to the USA to face charges of treason. In American law, treason is punishable by death – the ultimate physical threat. However, there is so far no clear evidence that this is likely to happen.
- An embassy is an institution in one country that represents the government of another. The belief that an embassy is part of the state it represents is not in fact true; but embassies do have special privileges under international law. Expelling ambassadors from embassies is often a prelude to war or revolution.
- Private diplomatic documents
- Most of these were merely private rather than top secret, but the information they contained was still very sensitive. In some correspondence, for instance, diplomats discussed foreign leaders in personal and disparaging terms. Others were more shocking, such as the recorded conversation that showed US soldiers killing innocent international observers.
- Apparently unrelated
- Julian Assange and his supporters claim that the allegations are actually a politically-motivated conspiracy. Only Assange and his accusers can be sure of the truth.
- Right of asylum
- A place of asylum is anywhere that state authority does not apply. This concept has existed since the time of Ancient Greece and Egypt, while in Mediaeval England a fugitive could hide out in a church for up to forty days. Asylum seekers can also flee their country altogether – as many famous thinkers have done, including Marx, Voltaire and Thomas Hobbes. The right to asylum from persecution is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.