By Sally Burch*
It is well-known that in the U.S., the "war on terror" launched by President George W. Bush has meant a progressive deterioration of civil rights, much of which persists under the Obama administration. It is therefore quite plausible that Assange would risk defencelessness and violation of his rights should he be extradited to that country, where he claims that a grand jury is preparing a trial against him in secret for the publication of thousands of internal documents from the diplomatic missions. At the same time, it is astonishing that the UK government has threatened to violate the diplomatic immunity of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to arrest Assange, on the basis of an obscure domestic law (which would imply ignoring international legislation), although later, following the reactions it set off, Foreign Minister William Hague denied such action would be taken.
Refuge in the South
In an extensive official statement announcing the asylum, based on international conventions, Ecuador spelt out the legal and ethical arguments to justify its decision, which include (in free translation):
"That Julian Assange is a communications professional who has received international awards for his struggle for freedom of expression, press freedom and human rights in general";
"That there is strong evidence of retaliation from the country or countries that produced the information disclosed by Mr. Assange"; and
"That the legal evidence clearly shows that, in the case of extradition to the United States of America, Mr. Assange would not have a fair trial, that he could be tried by special or military courts, and it is not unlikely that he would receive cruel and degrading treatment, and be sentenced to life imprisonment or capital punishment, which would amount to a failure to respect his human rights."
Ecuador also states that it does not mean to interfere with Swedish justice, which has requested the extradition of Assange for questioning around alleged sexual abuse, although for now there is no specific charge against him. But it also claims that the "Swedish prosecutor has shown a contradictory attitude", which would affect the procedural rights of Assange. (Among other things, Sweden declined the offer of interrogating him at the embassy in London).
Moreover, the Declaration mentions, in reference to the fact that Ecuador has taken in a large number of refugees from the civil war in neighbouring Colombia, that:
"The High Commissioner for Refugees has praised Ecuador's refugee policy, and highlighted the significant fact that the country has not confined these people to camps, but they have been integrated into society, in full enjoyment of their human rights and guarantees."
This appears to allude to Britain, which holds thousands of asylum seekers in detention centres where they can remain indefinitely, with the risk even of being returned to their home countries if the petition is rejected.
It was two months ago that Assange sought refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy. His mother, Christine Assange, who visited Ecuador in early August, stated in response to a question from ALAI, that when a foreign ministry official announced unofficially, two years ago, that Julian would be welcome in Ecuador, at the time her son failed to grasp that he may need political asylum. "Julian is not experienced in the matters that Latin America are, in regard to needing protection from the US. He assumed that justice would take its due course," she added.
Commenting on the choice of Ecuador to seek refuge, Ms. Assange highlighted the exemplary record of human rights in that country in the past five years. "It underscores the Constitution and every policy, and one of the policies is freedom of expression in all of its forms, the protection of journalists and their sources, and unlike some countries, Ecuador actually acts upon these mandates of human rights and freedom of expression," she declared. This is compounded by the strong sovereign mandate of the country, whose main defender is President Correa himself, who is "courageous enough to stand up to US pressure." Christine also highlighted the popular support for these policies, which she witnessed at a meeting of young people from different political persuasions, who were unanimous in supporting asylum for her son.
At the same meeting with the press, Spanish lawyer Baltasar Garzón, who coordinates Assange’s legal defense among the different countries involved, said that once Ecuador granted asylum, Britain would have no legal justification for not granting safe passage out of the country. "Legally they cannot refuse because Ecuador is a free and democratic sovereign state, just like the United States, neither more nor less. It is true that the hegemonic position is not similar, and the only factor that could influence not granting of safe passage is force ", something which cannot be used between democratic states with a system of rights, he said, otherwise it would completely vitiate the proceedings.
The future is uncertain for Assange, although Ecuador has indicated that he could remain indefinitely in the embassy if the safe passage fails to come through. No doubt the decision could bring retaliation against the country. Given the threatening attitude of the United Kingdom, Foreign Minister Patiño has asked the regional political fora - ALBA, UNASUR, CELAC, OAS- for emergency meetings to express a position on the threat to Ecuador’s sovereignty.
ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance for Our Americas (with eight Latin American and Caribbean member countries) issued a statement rejecting the British threat to the integrity of the Ecuadorian embassy and its sovereign right to manage its own asylum policy. In an interview in Quito, the Secretary of this organization, Rodolfo Sanz, said that "Ecuador granted political asylum because it deems that the case is political. The case is not one of ordinary criminal law. It is up to England to decide whether to grant safe passage. Political asylum is a figure of international law accepted by all countries that are members of the United Nations." He recalled that for that reason, many Latin American countries have granted safe passage to people who have committed more serious crimes: like the fugitive bankers who are in the U.S., and even several people involved in the murders of 11 April 2002 in Venezuela (when an attempted coup took place against President Hugo Chavez).
ALBA has announced a meeting of foreign ministers for Saturday August 18 in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and UNASUR (the Union of South American Nations) will convene on Sunday in the same city. Meanwhile, the Organization of American States (OAS) will decide this Friday 17 whether to call a foreign ministers meeting for next week. Canada and the United States underplayed the discussion and do not support convening a meeting. Meanwhile, Victoria Nuland, spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, today rejected the accusation that her country is pushing the UK to invade the Ecuadorian embassy in London by force to arrest Assange, stating that it is a matter for the nations involved and “we have no plans to intervene”.
Latin American social organizations have announced they are in consultations to promote an international campaign of support for Ecuador and of pressure on the European country, which has ratified its determination to hand Assange over to the Swedish justice system.
Doubtless for a Northern nation state such as the UK, it must be an intolerable affront that a small and insignificant country from the South, such as Ecuador, could be giving them a lesson in human rights.
*Sally Burch is a British journalist based in Ecuador, where she works at Latin America in Movement (ALAI).
Source: Latin America in Movement: http://www.alainet.org/active/57241
Photo: Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño (www.ecuadortimes.net)