For the past three nights, Julian Assange has been sleeping in a converted office at the Ecuadorian embassy in London. And for the past three nights, British police have been camping outside the embassy, waiting to arrest the WikiLeaks founder for violating the terms of his bail, which state he must stay at a registered bail address.
The showdown is the result of a bold move earlier this week by Assange, who has been under house arrest since 2010 as he fights extradition to Sweden for accusations of sexual assault.
The 40-year-old Australia native believes that the allegations are politically motivated, designed to facilitate his eventual extradition to the U.S. for publishing thousands of classified American government documents in 2010.
Thus far, Assange has been able to survive through the generosity of wealthy friends. Journalist Vaughn Smith is among those who have supported him during the appeals process. Smith let Assange stay in a cottage during his house arrest. Fahrenheit 911 director Michael Moore and human rights activist Jemima Khan contributed to Assange’s $380,000 bail.
This week, a British high court rejected Assange’s request not to be extradited. He also received a letter from the Australian government saying it would not intervene on his behalf—a statement his lawyers classified as a “declaration of abandonment.”
On the surface, Assange’s courtship of Ecuador makes a lot of sense. His relationship with the country stems from the WikiLeaks release of more than 250,000 U.S. embassy cables in November 2010. Of the numerous embarrassing and unflattering portraits revealed were documents critical of current Ecuador president Rafael Correa’s tightening grip on the freedom of speech of media outlets.
“Over the past year the government has launched three ‘public’ media outlets that in theory report on citizens’ business, but in practice mainly report favourably on government actions,” said the document. “The new constitution includes a number of provisions that make commercial media outlets vulnerable to government pressure.”
“Taken together, President Correa’s actions and the provisions of the new constitution present a serious challenge to Ecuadorian media and freedom of the press.”
Assange has a friendly rapport with President Correa. In a recent interview with the president, conducted while under house arrest, Correa praised the Australian’s efforts and shared his concerns over American imperialism. “Your WikiLeaks made us stronger,” he said, smiling, before finishing the interview with a warm welcome to the “the club of the persecuted.”
By aligning himself with Correa, Assange risks losing whatever credibility he now claims. Ecuador has a long history of repression, corruption and human rights violations. Correa’s prolonged vocal criticism of the U.S. is in chorus with other perceived human-rights bullies in the region, such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Bolvia’s Evo Morales, and Cuba’s Fidel Castro.
The Correa reputation may be getting worse. Just last February, the publisher of the Ecuadorean newspaper El Universo was sentenced to three years in prison for criticizing Correa. The publisher eventually retreated to the Panamanian Embassy in Quito before being granted asylum.
If Assange is serious about defending freedom of speech and transparency, Ecuador is clearly not the place. Assange surely knows this.
The WikiLeaks honcho’s actions this week represent a last-ditch effort to avoid extradition and potential jail time. Even if he stays out from behind bars in Ecuador, that physical freedom may not be worth the price of having his voice shackled.
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