Many observers have portrayed President Rafael Correa’s decision to grant asylum to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange as an act of defiance – a gratuitous slap at the United States – and, because of Correa’s mixed record of respect for a free press, as a sign of hypocrisy. How can a President who has prosecuted newspapers for revealing damaging information about his government, according to Correa’s accusers, now stand up as the defender of Assange’s right to publish hundreds of thousands of sensitive U.S. Government documents?
The lack of clarity on British and Swedish intentions made the decision difficult. American officials have minced no words about their hopes to prosecute Assange, although none has stated what the charges would be. Even U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has referred to him as a “high-tech terrorist.” Former Republican presidential nominees Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee have called for his execution. (A former senior Canadian official said, “I think Assange should be assassinated.”) The Swedish government, which seeks only to question Assange about allegations of sexual abuses (important offenses in Swedish law), has refused to conduct the interrogations in London or by video, or to provide reassurances that he will not be extradited to the United States. British officials at one point even threatened to enter the Ecuadoran Embassy in London, a flagrant violation of well-established principles of international law.
Correa’s ancillary agendas notwithstanding, the asylum decision would have been difficult for almost any country. There is no evidence that Assange would not get a fair trial in the United States or that he would face the sort of abuse and torture that Bradley Manning – the alleged American source of the Wikileaks documents – has faced. But the American silence on the charges Assange might face, the rhetoric tarring him as a terrorist and the lack of U.S. accountability for past abuses – the Obama Administration last week announced yet another decision to forego prosecution of U.S. officials involved in alleged torture – makes the absence of a pledge regarding extradition to the United States politically sensitive. Ironically, the U.S., British and Swedish position risks thrusting them into the same ironic contradiction as Correa finds himself: claiming to protect human rights, they may open the door to prosecution of a man who published leaked information – and who by any reasonable standard is an indiscriminate whistle blower but hardly an agent of espionage. If their pursuit of Assange were to result in his exposure to U.S. prosecution related to the Wikileaks matter, these democracies would potentially risk being parties to a serious violation of fundamental principles of free expression.